26/10/2018
Share this story Share on Facebook icon Share on Twitter icon Share on Pinterest icon Share on Google Plus icon Share on Linked In icon Share via Email icon

New radiocarbon dating of Pictish sites reveals early origins of written communication

63640af4-bfad-4891-90a9-a243de562fcd

Now research led by the University of Aberdeen is shedding new light on the origin and development of the as yet un-deciphered system of symbols once used by the Picts, which has divided historical opinion for more than a century.

The Picts have long been regarded as a mysterious people, leaving behind little evidence of their presence other than their iconic carved stones.

Archaeologists from the University have teamed up with National Museums Scotland and dating experts from the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC) to provide a more accurate dating scheme which suggests that the system of carved symbols can be traced to as far back as the third-fourth century AD – much earlier than previously assumed.

Researchers radiocarbon dated objects carved with symbols and specially selected samples from modern excavations to provide an outline chronology for the Pictish symbol system based on scientific rather than art-historical dating techniques.

     QUICK LINK: Re-creation of a Pictish hillfort

Their findings, published in the leading archaeology journal Antiquity, support the idea that the symbols represent a script likely to be a naming system communicating the identities of Picts and that this was developed in the same era as other writing systems across Europe like the ogham script of early Ireland and the runic system developed in Scandinavia.

A growing consensus

Gordon Noble, Head of Archaeology at the University of Aberdeen led the archaeological excavations. He said: “Establishing an outline chronology through a combination of direct dating, modelling and examining associated dates from archaeological excavation is helping us rewrite the history of these symbolic traditions of Northern Europe and to understand more clearly the context of their development and use.

“In the last few decades there has been a growing consensus that the symbols on these stones are an early form of language and our recent excavations, and the dating of objects found close to the location of the stones, provides for the first time a much more secure chronology. While others had suggested early origins for this system no direct scientific dating was available to support this. Our dating reveals that the symbol system is likely to date from the third-fourth century AD and from an earlier period than many scholars had assumed.”

New chronology

The team has developed a ‘new and more robust’ chronology which identifies a clear pattern in both the likely date and the style of the carvings.

The dating evidence drew on excavation work at a promontory fort at Dunnicaer seastack, located south of Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire, where unelaborated carvings, generally of a smaller size and less standardised when compared with the later standing stone monuments, had been recovered in the 19th century.

The new excavations revealed that the stones probably came from the rampart of the fort and the dating of the site conclusively showed that the settlement was at its height in the third to fourth centuries AD.

Direct dating was also carried out on bone objects and settlement layers from sites in the Northern Isles. This showed the use of the symbol system in the fifth century AD in the far north, in areas that were at the periphery of Pictland.

Use of Bayesian modelling

Bayesian modelling, a technique for refining and narrowing down the probabilities of radiocarbon dating, was also used to provide greater clarity on the dates of Pictish settlement at Rhynie in Aberdeenshire, famous for the Rhynie Man stone. This showed that a fort with Pictish symbol stones standing within a series of ramparts and palisades dated from the late fourth to early sixth century AD.

Dr Martin Golderg of National Museums Scotland added: “Our new dating work suggests that the development of these Pictish symbols was much more closely aligned to the broader northern phenomenon of developing vernacular scripts, such as the runic system of Scandinavia and north Germany, than had been previously thought.

“The general assumption has been that the Picts were late to the game in terms of monumental communication, but this new chronology shows that they were actually innovators in the same way as their contemporaries, perhaps more so in that they did not adapt an alphabetic script, but developed their own symbol-script.

“The Pictish symbol stones are the most common and monumental form of communication that survives from northern Britain but their origin has been little understood compared to other forms of alphabetic script. Our research is helping to correct that and to shed new light on an often overlooked, but important part of our heritage. The typology developed from these scientific dates will also help us to assign relative dates to the whole corpus of the Pictish symbol tradition, allowing us to further assess how this script changed through time”

Dr Derek Hamilton of SUERC undertook the Bayesian modelling. Dr Hamilton said: “Bayesian modelling has revolutionised the world of radiocarbon dating, helping us to develop more refined chronological frameworks than was previously possible. The statistical modelling of the dates from Pictland is beginning to set our understanding of this tradition on a more solid footing than ever before.”

QUICK LINK: Top ten places to see Celtic & Pictish carvings

(images - craw stane and excavations copyright Cathy MaCiver/University of Aberdeen)

Back to "Features" Category

26/10/2018 Share this story   Share on Facebook icon Share on Twitter icon Share on Pinterest icon Share on Google Plus icon Share on Linked In icon Share via Email icon

Recent Updates

Golfer Tom Morris was born - On this day in history

Scottish golfer 'Old Tom Morris' was born on 16 June 1821.


Poet Thomas Campbell died - On this day in history

Poet Thomas Campbell died in Boulogne, France on 15 June 1844.


Television pioneer John Logie Baird died - On this day in history

John Logie Baird, the man who created the world's first successful publicly demonstrated television, died on ...


Scientist James Clerk Maxwell was born - On this day in history

Scientist James Clerk Maxwell was born on 13 June 1831. ...


Other Articles

Astronomer David Gill was born - On this day in history

Astronomer Sir David Gill was born on 12 June 1843.


Army@TheFringe returns to Edinburgh for 2019

Army@TheFringe is returning to Edinburgh for a third year with another programme of shows that explore life ...


Site of biggest ever meteorite collision in the UK discovered

Scientists believe they have discovered the site of the biggest meteorite impact ever to hit the British ...


300 year-old musket ball and mortar shell from the Battle of Glenshiel discovered by archaeologists.

A team of archaeologists working at the scene of Scotland’s ‘forgotten’ Jacobite rising have uncovered the ...