Mathematics of Pictish carvings reveal lost language

Mathematics of ancient carvings reveals lost language.

Elaborate symbols and ornate depictions of animals carved in stone by an ancient Scottish people, the Picts from where the Kinloch family name originates, have given up their secret – to mathematics. Statistical analysis reveals that the shapes are a forgotten written language. The method could help interpret many other enigmatic scripts – and even analyse animal communication.

Conventional statistical methods for analysing scripts calculate the entropy or “orderedness” of the symbols: Shakespeare’s prose would have a higher entropy than Egyptian hieroglyphs or Morse code, for example. However, such analysis only works for datasets large enough to capture most of the vocabulary in a language.

To overcome this problem, Rob Lee of the University of Exeter, UK, and colleagues have devised a way to compare small undeciphered scripts with known texts. The team compared symbols created by the Picts – a Scottish Iron Age society that flourished from the fourth to the ninth centuries AD – with over 400 known ancient and modern language texts.

The family name Kinloch is Pictish in origin.