Stones of the Picts

Here is an excellent online overview with some concise analysis of the gorgeous graphic-art of the Pictish stones. It’s very well-referenced, and the author has a personal historical connection to the subject. We highly recommend a full read of the original article, and the author’s blog with his book seems to present a fascinating look at the intersection of art, science, religion, and culture.

“With my surname it is inevitable that I should become interested in the Picts, a people who lived in Scotland during the first millennium of the Common Era. They left behind many sculptured stones, which now stand in fields and churchyards in the Northeast part of Scotland. Together with the Scots, the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons, they became the people of Scotland.”

–Terrance W Picton

Recent archeological evidence has indicated a major change in the people of Britain during the 3rd Millennium BCE. At that time the original Neolithic inhabitants of the islands were largely replaced by Bronze Age people from the continent who brought with them the technology of Bell-Beaker pots (Olalde et al., 2018). This migration to Britain was part of the westward expansion of the Celtic peoples (Manco, 2015; Cunliffe, 2018).

Pictish Symbols


No one knows what the symbols represent. Most interpreters
relate the symbols to physical objects or animals; others suggest a more
abstract or spiritual correlation. The double disk could indicate the sun and
its transition from winter to summer. In more abstract terms, it could indicate a marriage, or the opposition of life and death. The crescent likely has some relation to the moon. The Z-rod and V-rod might represent broken spears or arrows. The notched rectangle might represent a chariot. The Pictish beast is clearly animate, but no one knows what animal it represents or whether the animal is real or imaginary. My own preference is for a dolphin. The tuning fork might represent the tongs used in metal work. This would fit with the Celtic expertise in working bronze. Others have suggested that it shows a broken sword.

Whether the symbols have further meaning is impossible to know. They might represent hieroglyphs like those in Egypt, or even a
syllabic alphabet. As such they could have been used to name clans or families. The number of stones with symbols are far too few to allow easy linguistic analysis.

Pictish Stones

The stones might define territory or indicate a meeting place. They do not appear to commemorate persons since most stones are unrelated to burials. An exception is the Picardy Stone (Myreton Farm, near Insch), which was located above what appeared to be an empty grave. The stone is 2 meters high and has three incised symbols: a double disk with a superimposed Z-Rod, a serpent with a Z-Rod and a mirror. The illustration below compares a recent photograph (by Peter Richardson) with the engraving from
Stuart (1856):