‘Iron Age’ Picts and their spoken language

Okay, here’s another thing I wanted to write up before I went to Kalamazoo. You may have seen, if you are following Archaeology in Europe as you all should be, that there was a recent paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society A that apparently decodes the Pictish language or something similar. I confess to initial scepticism, not least because they inexplicably persist in using the term `Iron Age’ for a people only attested under the name ‘Picts’ from the Roman period onwards, and whose glory days are most definitely early medieval, but I am interested in the Picts, I am in favour of Science! in history and so I thought I’d better have a look. After all, I am developing a blog-tradition of critiquing scientific papers on matters historical, and I’d hate to pass up another opportunity. Now, if those instances have taught me anything, it is these things:

  1. articles based on the press release usually massively exaggerate the impact, and indeed the intent, of the actual research;
  2. the actual research is usually more interested in proving a method than in its applications, otherwise it would have been published in a historical forum not a scientific one; and,
  3. it is unfortunately rare for the authors of that research to have read enough in the field to which they’re supposedly contributing to have an accurate sense of whether or not they really are.

And this particular case ticks all three boxes, which is to say it’s interesting, appears scientifically rigorous at first glance, but sadly isn’t going to add much to the historical or linguistic debates, even though the news coverage would have you believe it’s a revolution in the field. So first of all I’ll deal with what the paper is doing, then try very briefly to describe the debate in which it belongs, and lastly assess the former against the latter. And because these things turn out to take a while, I will do so behind a cut…

The Pictish symbols display signs of a spoken language

To have heard of the Picts is almost to have heard of their symbol stones. These enigmatic monuments exist from or in many parts of modern Scotland and, though the iconography of Christianity distinguishes some from the others, and eventually seems to have driven out local styles entirely, before that final phase the stones share a remarkably coherent and limited library of symbols, the meaning of which has been debated for a long time (though I’m getting ahead of myself there). Here they are:

The Pictish stones' symbol library

The Pictish stones' symbol library

What this new paper is actually doing, as opposed to what the press coverage has said, is demonstrating that these symbols have characteristics that belong to a writing system that is representing a spoken language, lexigraphically.1 The method is down to how random the distribution of these symbols in use is, specifically how predictable or not a second symbol is when a first symbol is known. For example, if in English you have a word, or even a syllable (or a digram, as the paper has it, a combination of two symbols), that starts with `w-’, there are a restricted set of symbols that can then follow it. All the vowels might work: consonants such as `-r’, or `-l’ or `-s’ are possible if this is part of a large word, but `-b’, `-g’ or `-x’ are at least less likely and maybe actually impossible. A starker example is obviously `q-’, which except in cases only found in the Scrabble dictionary is only followed by `u’ in English. For that example, the entropy they’re counting is basically zero, it’s nowhere near random. Even with letters like `e’, in actual use the sample is a lot less than random because some combinations are so much more common than others. And this is a common characteristic, say they, of lexigraphical writing systems: their symbol distribution is significantly non-random, whereas with what they insist on calling a `heraldic’ system, by which I assume that they mean pictographic—they don’t mean logographic, for reasons I’ll come to—it’s far closer to random, and the division between these two cases, they say, is pronounced enough that with a decent sample you can tell lexigraphic from `heraldic’ by application of a test for `Shannon entropy’.

The Pictish symbol stone at Gairloch, Wester Ross

The Pictish symbol stone at Gairloch, Wester Ross

OK, so far this sounds plausible: Pictish symbols do tend to occur in a certain number of repeated combinations, though you’d get no sense of that from this paper admittedly. The problem is that we’re dealing with such a tiny sample set: 23 symbols (or 35 according to a more generous classification, admittedly) repeated over about 180 stones is not a lot to conjure with. In order for the Shannon test they’re using to work, they therefore have to have an estimate of how many of the possible combinations we have. So the crux of the paper is an attempt to prove that you can do this by reasoning up from the number of single symbols versus the number of combinations of symbols. Now, I have met this kind of maths before, in dealing with estimating currency size from coin die survival, and there it sucks.2 However, let’s not dismiss it out of hand just yet. They’re not actually sure if this method works but they are sure that the attempt would produce different results—because of the repetition of particular combinations being much higher in lexigraphic ones than heraldic, for example how many words in English contain the doublet `er’—in a ‘heraldic’ writing system than in a lexigraphic writing system. And for them Pictish is the latter, not the former.

A graph of the randomness of Pictish symbol combinations, with additions by Language Log

A graph of the randomness of Pictish symbol combinations, with additions by Language Log

Now, this is not without its problems even in its own terms, and as you might expect, Language Log has been all over them. The biggest problem is that the paper’s random test set also comes out on the `written significance’ side of the barrier they set. Furthermore, so do many other things that are not at all linguistic: on the graph above that I’ve poached from Language Log, the red cross is the randomness of 32 throws of a six-sided die, and by the standards of this paper that’s significant, because it’s not uniform. So a lot seems to fall over if you actually mean `random’ rather than `evenly distributed’. But even then, the point I think still stands: the symbols have meaning. Problem is, I think we had more or less got that already.

Historian’s perspectives

Let’s start with the Pictish language we’ve supposedly discovered here, and then talk about the stones a bit, then bring them together for the grand finale. (Yes, this post will in fact end some time, I promise.)

The Pictish language

The language of the Picts has been a matter of debate for long enough that Walter Scott parodied the arguments (in his The Antiquary). This is mainly because we have so little of it left. (We don't have 'none', as the woman who appears to have written the article that first led me to this seems to have believed when she headlined that “New Written Language of Ancient Scotland Discovered”, but that I can dismiss because the RSPA paper makes no such claim, and in fact discusses the corpus of material quite thoroughly given the space available.3) The only definitively Pictish text we have is the king-list, which you can find, apart from anywhere else, inscribed in the walls of the relevant gallery of the National Museum of Scotland, or for those not actually in Edinburgh right now, here. Even this is mainly Latin, but the names appear to be rendered in Pictish, not Gaelic, and even some Gaelic ones have been Pictished, so we have the beginnings of a clue. There are also a bunch of place-names, and of some of these it has been particularly noted that they include the sound `P’, which {edit: I had this sentence and the next all backwards, sorry; thanks to commentators] evolved in the Brittonic and Gaulish languages out of a kw- sound that the Goidelic languages spoken in Ireland retained, for which reason these two branches are usually called P-Celtic and Q-Celtic. What exactly these names mean is a matter of debate, but this factor at least means that they cannot simply be Gaelic.4 Then there are 14 36 of the stones inscribed with legends in Ogam, and another 2 in Latin, so both in foreign scripts implying perhaps foreign scribes, but also apparently containing Pictish names, and of which large parts have not yet been understood.5 And then we have Bede, who tells us that in his day four five languages were spoken in the British Isles, English, British, Pictish and Gaelic, [edit: as well as Latin, of course] and we have Adomnán of Iona, who has stories of Columba going to Pictland, even bits of Pictland quite close to Iona, and needing an interpreter.6 And that’s basically it.

The 'Drosten stone' from St Vigeans

The 'Drosten stone' from St Vigeans, image from Wikimedia Commons

There are deep-seated issues here because since Kenneth Jackson, and probably before, there’s been an argument that the incomprehensible bits of Pictish as we have it are evidence of the survival of a non-Celtic language, possibly even a pre-Indo-European one like Basque, and of course the nationalists just love this and so it will not die. Of recent years, however, Kathleen Katherine Forsyth has all but demolished this thesis for the academic world, arguing that the stones are just hard to understand, not actually gibberish, and that all the other evidence, primarily the place-names in Pett- or Pit-, indicate that Pictish was a P-Celtic language and that it was the only one spoken across the area known as Pictland.7 Most people have been happy with this, but a few small villages still hold out. I have tentatively suggested that the chronology of this needs to be looked at because there are reasons to believe quite a lot of ‘Pictland’ was already Gaelic-speaking long before the Gaelic takeover, not least Atholl, whose name, attested in the eighth century in the Irish annals (though heaven only knows that’s not a simple thing to assert), is plainly derived from the Gaelic for ‘New Ireland’.8 More importantly, Graham Isaac, a very learned Celticist, has repeatedly stood up in public and said that there are still a lot of place-names attested from early Scotland that do not make sense in Celtic, and for which some other explanation remains necessary.9 What this most immediately means is that we may be somewhat off-base in asserting a single Pictish language, for all that Forsyth does, and this ties up well with the numerous other indicators I’m fond of pointing out that we have plural cultures in this single political zone.

The symbols on the stones

It used, I think, a long time ago, to be thought that the symbols were no more than illustrations for the stones, and this seems to be what the article here is mainly kicking against, but actually attempts have been being made for a long time to give them meaning, and this scholarship is largely missing from the RSPA authors’ reading sad to say. I was going to try and type up an account of it but then I found I already owned a better one, so I’ll just use that:

Archaeologist Charles Thomas saw the symbols as memories of late Iron Age weapons and equipment; perhaps the symbol stones were used instead of placing these things in a grave: a broken spear, a sword, a chariot. By the time the images came to be used by the Picts, in the fifth to seventh centuries, they were symbols of rank, and indicated who was remembered and who set up the memorial. So the Dunrobin stone could mean `Erected to a Warrior of the salmon-people by his wife’.

The Dunrobin stone

The stone depicted is known as Dunrobin I and it shows a fish, a 'tuning fork' (perhaps a sword?) and a mirror and comb. Most Pictish symbol-fish are thought to be salmon.

The anthropologist Anthony Jackson has suggested that the symbols are records of marriage treaties, typically made on boundaries of united lands, and especially necessary where descent is through the mother. The symbols refer to families or kinship groups which, occurring in pairs and triplets, record the interest that each family retains. The Dunrobin stone might be interpreted as recording a marriage between the salmon and sword families. The mirror and comb indicates that the bridewealth was paid by the senior family.
By contrast, the Glasgow scholar Ross Samson looked on the symbols as representing the elements of names; each symbol gives the sound of a Pictish word or syllable, which joined together make up a name. An equivalent in Anglo-Saxon would be Aethel-wulf – loosely ‘Noble Wolf’ – or Sigeberht ‘victory bright’. So in this interpretation the Dunrobin stone might mean ‘in memory of a woman called Salmon-sword’ or more prosaically ‘Here lies Mrs Swordfish’.

Other scholars have shown how the stones are likely to mark out territory or land and most agree that the probable function of the symbols is to celebrate a named individual, in line with practice in the neighbouring Celtic and German lands.10

Contribution to our Knowledge

That rather useful breakdown of the debate over the symbols lets us see fairly easily where this paper may have an impact. Which of these theories does it support? At first sight, it would seem to be Samson’s, not Thomas’s, and maybe Jackson’s, because Samson’s understanding of the symbols’ meaning is in fact as parts of words that would be said, Thomas’s is however purely symbolic, or as our authors would have it `heraldic’, and Jackson’s could go either way. But why is there this insistence on the term `heraldic’, rather than more usual ones like logographic? Well, that seems to be the second weak point in the argument, the first being the question of statistical distinction spotted by the people at Language Log. On analysing their results to try and answer the question of whether what they are picking up is combinations that are meaningful in themselves (that is, words, or at least particles) or phonemes that only have a sense when used together (and it seems to me that monosyllabic words would twit that distinction anyway), the RSPA authors conclude:

The larger symbol categorization proposed by Allen and Anderson in Early Christian Monuments of Scotland implies that the Pictish symbols are very constrained words, similar in constraint to the genealogical name lists.11

To which, my first reaction was, yes, so they’re gravestones then, with names on, same as we already thought. And then I also thought: in that case, if each symbol is a word, how is this system definitionally different from one of pictograms or hieroglyphs anyway? and I guess that’s why they’ve used the word `heraldic’, because they are actually looking at what they think are logographs, but I’m still not convinced there’s a meaningful distinction they can draw. And if so, well, doesn’t the whole thing come to bits, if there’s no real distinction between the two cases their method is supposed to distinguish? This is the point, I guess, where a real linguist should take over (I’d page Michael Drout but he seems to be a bit busy at the moment…) but it smells of Pictish salmon to me. On the other hand, if we can trust that they are right about words, then it would seem to cripple the Samson theory and leave us only with Jackson or Thomas once more, and I have to admit that given the stones’ very largely funerary context—many were found in graves, even, suggesting that they weren’t even intended to be seen—I’d prefer Thomas, but against that, a lot of the stones have been moved and Jackson had no problem finding some on supposed boundary zones, although I suspect that that is probably like finding ancient monumental alignments in many ways.

But then they go on with this, and I lose my rag somewhat:

However, demonstrating that the Pictish symbols are writing, with the symbols probably corresponding to words, opens a unique line of further research for historians and linguists investigating the Picts and how they viewed themselves.12

No, look, it really doesn’t. This “unique line” has been open a long time already and this paper has entirely failed to address that debate, which as said above it might have been able to do. And even if it were addressed to the scholarship, there are so many basic problems, not just with the maths but with the assumptions about a language’s nature, most of which are also punctured at Language Log. The single best comment there comes from one Pavel Iosad, who wisely says:

I have not yet seen the paper, but the interview quoted is sometimes hilarious. Apparently the Picts did not only have written language, but (as if someone thought the contrary) also a complex spoken language. You don’t say!

In any case, this all seems like a case of looking for something in a lighted place, as opposed to where you lost it…. That is, we know that some “Picts” (where “Picts” is of course pretty much a cover term for “any tribes living north of the Brigantes and Votadini, the northernmost tribes that Romans knew relatively much about”) spoke a Celtic, in all probability a Brythonic language, and some “Picts” spoke a different language, often assumed to be non-IE. This latter is recoverable from placenames and personal names, but the tantalizing issue is a number of Ogham inscriptions which are not in Goidelic Celtic and have yet defied convincing decipherment. To look for a language in, uh, pictures, when there are possibly two perfectly “normal” languages in the same place strikes me as, let’s put it mildly, fruitless.

And he is right. At its most basic the impact of this paper is “new research shows that Picts… spoke!”; at its most developed, it is still only, “Pictish symbols probably have linguistic value”, which was, as I say, pretty much agreed though a new means of showing these things is always welcome. But whether that then means we’re looking at Pictish is another question. Some part of Pictish, possibly: after all, this has a meaning that refers to spoken words, but is perhaps not really English:

British fire hydrant marker

British fire hydrant marker

The meaning is, I believe, “there is a hydrant located 3 yards from here at a bearing of 75 degrees” but I could easily be wrong and please check before you next start a fire in Britain. The point is, what if these symbols are, as we might suspect, only a very very limited part of a potential Pictish vocabulary?

Distribution map of Scottish place-names in Pit-

Distribution map of Scottish place-names in Pit-

And then there is the problem of what language the ‘Picts’ actually spoke, as said above. The map above shows the spread of place-names of the form Pit- in Scotland, which as also said above is a P-Celtic signifier (and probably just means ‘settlement’). The one below, shows the distribution of the stones. Now, I know that I’m fond of arguing against the use of distribution maps as interpretative tools, because of one not knowing that one’s mapped the right things, but this is a negative correlation I’m trying to show, so I think it’s OK. Because they don’t match, do they? I mean, they overlap, quite a lot, but the stones’ heartland is further north than the ‘Pit-’ heartland, and there are plenty of stones out further west where these place-names don’t exist. I think it is clear that the stones and at least one of the languages used by people who were called Picts by outsiders were not confined to matching areas.

Map of distribution of Class I and Class II symbol stones, from Martin Carver's Surviving in Symbols

Map of distribution of Class I and Class II symbol stones, from Martin Carver's Surviving in Symbols, p. 19

So okay. You’ve heard me on this before, but really, the only thing that identifies a culture group as Pictish in this area is the stones and this symbol library. Since the label Pictish appears to cover multiple material culture groups, and also multiple and intercut linguistic strata, I think the meanings the stones carried must have been readily translatable. We don’t have the kind of evidence for bilinguality that would allow it to be a question of an élite imposing its language over the top of the local ones, as far as I know, but I could easily be wrong about that. In neither of these cases would I be surprised that the Pictish symbols could be explained in linguistic terms. I would just be rather surprised if it was always the same language, and I don’t think this paper gets us any closer to knowing.


1. Rob Lee, Philip Jonathan and Pauline Ziman, “Pictish symbols revealed as a written language through the application of Shannon entropy” in Proceedings of the Royal Society A: Mathematical and Physical Sciences, published online ahead of print March 31 2010, not yet in print but available for free here, cited here from separately paginated PDF download.

2. Critical testing by Warren Esty, “Estimation of the size of a coinage: a survey and comparison of methods” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 146 (London 1986), pp. 185–215; polemic deconstruction in Theodore V. Buttrey, “Calculating ancient coin production: facts and fantasies”, ibid. 153 (1993), pp. 335–51. Accessible discussion, I hope, in J. Jarrett, “Digitizing Numismatics: getting the Fitzwilliam Museum’s coins to the world-wide web” in The Heroic Age Vol. 12 (2009), online here, §§8-12.

3. Lee, Jonathan & Ziman, “Pictish symbols”, pp. 11-13.

4. Best discussed, even now, in W. J. Watson, The History of the Celtic Place-Names of Scotland, being the Rhind Lectures on Archaeology (expanded) delivered in 1916 (Edinburgh 1926), but see now and more briefly Katherine Forsyth, Language in Pictland: the case against non-Indo-European Pictish, Studia Hameliana 2 (Utrecht 1997), online despite fearsome copyright infringement warning here, pp. 24-25, who argues following Simon Taylor that these names are in fact post-Gaelic. This may be clearer in Taylor’s paper that she cites but would take me some brain-bending to accommodate meanwhile. Where are the Ps coming from? Why do they appear to match the distribution of Class II stones and long-cist burials, both east-centred, so nicely if they’re coming from the west? and so on.

5. It’s terribly old in terms of interpretation, but the best place to see these inscriptions drawn out is John Rhys, “The Inscriptions and Language of the Northern Picts” in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Northern Scotland Vol. 26 (Edinburgh 1892), pp. 263-351, online here. For interpretation, see Forsyth, Language in Pictland, pp. 31-36 and Pll. 1-4.

6. Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, I.1; Adomnán, Vita Columbae, I.26. On the latter see David N. Dumville, “Primarius Cohortis in Adomnán’s Life of Columba” in Scottish Gaelic Studies Vol. 13 (Glasgow 1978), pp. 130-131; it is important to emphasise that Adomnán does not say the man to whom Columba could not speak was a Pict.

7. Forsyth, Language in Pictland, is one long argument against Jackson’s theory, which was presented in “Kenneth H. Jackson, “The Pictish Language” in Frederick T. Wainwright (ed.), The Problem of the Picts (Edinburgh 1955), pp. 129-166.

8. J. Jarrett, “The Political Range of Áedán mac Gabráin, King of Dál Riata” in Pictish Arts Society Journal Vol. 17 (2008), pp. 3-24 at pp. 14-16, largely on the basis of Watson, Celtic Place-Names, pp. 108-113.

9. As far as I can tell Isaac has not published this material, which is frustrating; I heard the pitch as “Some observations on the linguistic geography of ancient and medieval Scotland”, paper presented to EMERGE 2003 Conference, University of St Andrews, 11th September 2003.

10. Martin Carver, Surviving in Symbols: a visit to the Pictish Nation, The Making of Scotland 5 (London 1999, repr. Edinburgh 2005), p. 20, presumably referring to: A. Charles Thomas, “The Interpretation of the Pictish Symbol Stones” in Archaeological Journal Vol. 120 (London 1963), pp. 31-97; Anthony Jackson, The Symbol Stones of Scotland (Orkney 1989); and Ross Samson, “Power to the Pictish ladies” in British Archaeology Vol. 3 (York 1995), online here without pagination.

11. Lee, Jonathan & Ziman, “Pictish Symbols”, p. 11.

12. Ibid.

40 responses to “‘Iron Age’ Picts and their spoken language

  1. I wonder if if could be evidence of multiple laguages rather than the same? I don’t know your word for a fish but I can draw a fish.

    You should get some of these posts registered at research blogging.org

    • As to researchblogging.org, I got your mail about that and will answer it. Suffice to say, I’ve considered it and decided against for now.

      As to the language, I think there’s something in that. The point I saw Jack Goody making a month or two back about the international value of a logographic or pictographic script comes into its own here. As with his example of China, here maybe we have a high-level polity asserting control over a disparate array of peoples with different spoken languages with a system that all their languages can be mapped to. I mean, that could be a very powerful point for how Pictland works. But the constrained symbol set is a real problem; this can’t be a language of administration (unless the stones only preserve a small set of what was a much larger library), there’s just not enough of it. I wonder if there’s even enough for names. This is the main reason I like Jackson’s theory that they’re tribal affiliations, on border-markers and grave-stones alike, with some extra conditions. But in other ways I still like Thomas’s better. I wonder therefore about maybe a Roman-type system with multiple names, some very constrained and some more personalised. And once again, certainty skips away…

      I mean, they meant something. It must be possible, therefore, to hit on what. But how to judge it palpable once it’s hit, aye, there’s the rub, as Shakespeare might have had it.

  2. Great Scot(t)! I had no idea you were such a Pictologist, Jon! :) If you were to sling me a copy of your paper on Áedán mac Gabráin, I should not turn it away.

    Yes, I saw the somewhat wacky “Pictish symbols revealed as a written language” stuff when it came out, and not surprisingly found it quickly dismissable as another case of “too-clever scientists rushing in where philologists sensibly fear to tread” …. which is not to say that plenty of equally fearless enthusiasts did not pick it up an scatter it around the internet. Language Log (not surprisingly) and others took a more rational view, of course.

    As for a Pictish lanugage as such (possibly related to, but, indeed, usefully distinct from Pictish cultural or political entities), yup, I would have to agree that the arguments identifying it as probably “P-Celtic” (or some variant of Insular Celtic perhaps more closely related to Brittonic than to Goidelic, depending on which side of the How to Carve Up Celtic debate we come down on today) seem by far the strongest. Yet this is not to set aside Issac’s observations (previously unknown to me, but not shocking me) that North Britain is awash (or at least decently equipped) with place-names that defy Celtic (and perhaps IE?) explanation. After all, leaving aside things like the Paleolithic Continuity Paradigm, we can be reasonably sure that people speaking some kind of language were banging around up there before the arrival of IE, and so we need not be surprised that some of their names (and we could easily have multiple linguistic layers between the post-Ice-Age resettlement and the arrival of IE) might still be there. Comparable processes are, of course, well represented in other parts of Europe and, indeed, the world.

    And, yes, Iosad’s observations seem to sum up many of the issues. We know the people up there were speaking something — Pictish or Celtic or whathaveyou — and it seems to me that the principle defensible conclusion of the “Pictish symbols revealed as a written language” article is actually that the things in the pictures probably had names in the language(s). However, I am not sure this is going to score anyone the Galactic Prize for Extreme Cleverness …. ;)

    • Well, this is exactly it. I think the only point in which what I’ve written differs from the scholarly orthodoxy on the whole issue, other than that I quote Isaac, is that I suggest there might actually be more than one language spoken by people who got called Picts. This, also, is not going to win that prize, I think!

      As for the Áedán paper, it had a long and troubled passage to print, so I suggest that you read this post too :-) and if you still want it after that, there’s a link to the definitive version and its bibliography at the end of the post.

      • Áedán paper duly scored — Ta! Another excuse to distract me from grading … :)

        And, yes, I feel reasonably sure we could claim that probably every living participant in every culture or ethnicity is descended from people who were participants in other cultures or ethnicities. The same having doubtless been true in the past (until we reach the misty periods in which cultural or ethnic expression by Homines sapientes first appeared), we may feel confident in saying that whatever the historical people called Picts spoke, their ancestors at some point are quite likely to have spoken something different.

        • Yeah, but I mean, at the same time. Pictish kings ruling over people who spoke a P-Celtic ‘Pictish’, people who spoke Gaelic, some weird Orkneyingars who spoke who knows what, and the peoples out on the west Highland coast about whom we just know nothing… All of whom are at some point under Pictish rule but materially look quite different in the archæology or place-name record.

          • Very much why we need to get away from 19th-century style assumptions (still _very_ prevalent across our fields, whether we acknowledge it or not) that Pictish language = Pictish material culture = Pictish political entity = etc., etc., which is why I original noted “Pictish language as such (possibly related to, but, indeed, usefully distinct from Pictish cultural or political entities)”. And we can plug in any ethno-linguistic-cultural name there in exchange for “Pictish”.

            Meanwhile, thinking more about “How We Carve Up Celtic” …. What if we accept an Insular-v-Continental split (instead of the trad P-v-Q split) and then accept the usual Goidelic-v-Brythonic split, but it then turned out that Pictish was a “P” version of normally “Q” Goidelic. :) Not that I have any good reason to assume that this might be so — but neither do I have any reason to assume that it is impossible. :) Perhaps someone, somewhere, does, though. Oh well! Just trying to put the occasional boot into the paradigm! :)

            • I think that you’re right to suggest that the paradigms need a (re)boot but in this instance, if I remember right—which by now I may not—Watson, who was a very clever man, did actually consider that possibility. Whether his reasons for concluding that it was unlikely still hold, though, I’ve no idea.

  3. Well. That’s something that needs to go in every Carnival about our period from here to the end of time. Phew. A detailed analysis; something you could write up as a paper-rebuttal?

    When the paper first appeared I was curious about what it actually *meant*- the press was all over it, and that didn’t help. I’m too ignorant about the Picts and their language to be able to critically analyse it, so thanks.

    I had a conversation with an academic the other day, where he asserted that the Picts spoke something non-IE, and I could not for the life of me remember where I had read the rebuttal. Man, this post is just useful for all kinds of reasons.

    • Some of the Picts may have spoken something non-IE at some times… but Dr Forsyth, who knows much more of this than I do, would disagree, so she’s where to get your rebuttal. Glad you have a use for the post.

      I have, somewhere swirling between all my blogposts, a serious paper that I should write about the political structure of the Pictish kingdom(s). I think it’s illustrative that I can’t imagine citing this work in it for any reason other than blatant interdisciplinarity points.

      • I would very, very much love to read such a paper. Very much. Especially if it happens to discuss Bridei son of Beli, Fortriu, and/or Talorcan.

        Not that that would be helpful for my thesis. *looks innocent*

        • Well. (I will answer that mail, by the way.) There is the above reply to Carl that links the paper I *did* write, with suitable warnings. There is also Alex Woolf’s paper on Fortriu about which you may know; that was put online for free a little while ago, and I can add that to the mail if it would help. The shape of the piece I’d want to write is lurking in the tail end of that old paper and in this post here. But I don’t see myself having the time or focus to produce it any time soon—looking over the old paper earlier made it clear to me how very much I’ve forgotten since I worked on this stuff, that I would have to recover—and it certainly wouldn’t be anywhere whence it could be cited within the duration of a thesis I’m afraid! Anyway, anyone in this field is operating in the ever-present danger that Alex Woolf or James Fraser will come out with something next month that pre-empts or disproves their pet idea…

          • I’ve read Woolf’s paper, and a good thing, too. Although it’s interesting that Fraser’s From Caledonia to Pictland still has Fortriu in the north.

            The Pictish sphere is by far and away the most complicated section of what I’m attempting, that is for certain. (Oh, and yes, I know you’ll get to it. No rush.)

            • Pictland is a bit of a mess, but I am not sure it’s alone in that. Pre-viking Scandinavia is, for example, rather a mess as well — a situation possibly made worse by so many people _thinking_ that it’s not a mess. But, oh well. That tale does not come into this saga!

              • Pictland almost has the opposite problem, of people assuming that it must be weird because the Picts are so mysterious.. . Catch-22!

                • Exactly! We’re into circularity. I find it dificult to buy the Non-Indo-European hypothesis, even though it still finds favour with some of our most heavyweight Celtic historical linguists. See Isaac’s article ‘Scotland’ (in ‘New Approaches…’ eds. Hoz, Lujan, Sims-Williams, Ediciones Clasicas, 2005).

                  The most northerly river given as Non-Celtic/Non IE is Ptolemy’s Nabaiou/Nabarou. This can beyond all reasonable doubt be shown to be IE if not Celtic. Hence an area very far from the supposed Celtic entry point into this island argues against this – a name collated c. 100 CE. Of course one could propose ‘Celts from the West’ which would require modification of this viewpoint.

                  Remember that it’s Jackson’s fairly brief article in 1955 that revived this Non-IE argument. Various later academics have taken issue with certain aspects, but this is not in any way to disparage the work of such a reliable and meticulous scholar.

                  • This can beyond all reasonable doubt be shown to be IE if not Celtic.

                    This is the sort of problem I mean for a non-linguist. Graham Isaacs (and thankyou for that reference! I have been struggling to find him saying this in print) says it’s not possible to see it as Celtic; you say it is. Which am I supposed to believe? You both give a good impression of knowing what you’re talking about and I don’t have the training to reach my own opinion. You tell me to look at Watson (which I have done) as your source yet your conclusions are very different from his. You say you introduce no new evidence, yet you are doing a thesis on the flipping names so there is a presupposition in your work that previous scholarship has got something wrong about them. I cannot tell from the literature what is objectively or even subjectively likely to be correct, which is why I think the test of whether I need to rethink my impressions entirely cannot be led by one as yet unreviewed voice, d’you see?

                    • In these discussions there has been no new evidence. It wouldn’t be fair of me to argue any case on the basis of evidence I’m not willing to share. Hence references to easily accessible printed sources alone. BTW it’s Isaac – no s – I always made this mistake and I’m not sure why. Curious. Isaac opts Nabaiou one of the readings of Ptol – an alternative is Nabarou. The river Nabhair rises some 20 miles to the south around Loch Nabhair. This is an immense frost hollow with Ben Klibreck to the south. On cloudless nights air cools, descends to the loch where it ponds. Cool heavier air then exits along the river where it encounters warmer air. This forms a long serpentine cloud which descends the river whose flow gives it added impetus. Local sources (e.g. head of local comp with degree in Geog) say this is a spectacular phenomenon, occurring a few times a month on this river, and much, much rarer on other rivers. This requires a broad frost hollow. Visible from sea but primarily an inland phenomenon. Watson derived this from PIE *nebh ‘cloud, mist’. Isaac claims it is not obvious why a river would be called cloud. Numerous such rivers in Wales (Tochen, Niwlen, Wybrnant – in mountainous Snowdonia!!) Rivers usually not exonyms. This instance requires local knowldege. Watson stands. It is as far as I’m aware the closest 1 to 1 relationship between a river name and its features on this island. So in c90 CE one of biggest rivers in NW Scotland has a clearly Indo-European name, if not Celtic. Therefore significant drawback for non-Indo-European hypothesis. Also note Nevis from same root. All required evidence provided.

                      Thesis not because of critique of others. New information and new tools. Prior views are always open to modification, as mine are.

  4. Apparently you are the ‘featured blog’ for the “Picts” tag on WordPress. I don’t know what that means, but congratulations? :P

  5. thank you for the wealth of information always as an artist seeking out and interested in symbol of getting rid of what is negative … and welcoming what is New and alive and wonderful…

  6. To clarify. Goidelic did not change P > Q. The sequence is that Celtic lost /p/, at some point. In most dialects kw became p (the opposite of the situation portrayed here) which gave ‘p-Celtic’. Some 40 (not 14) ogham insriptions survive in what is now Scotland. There is no reason to assume that they were carved by foreign scribes. Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica (Book I, 1) notes 5, not 4, languages. The academic referred to is Katherine Forsyth (not Kathleen). ‘Pit’ is largely irrelevant to the Pictish language. It was borrowed into Gaelic, possibly even from Brittonic, and its distribution agrees with the extent of the Gaelic kingdom of Alba 10-11 centuries not Pictland. Rather than ‘a bunch’ of place-names we have a few hundred which are probably Pictish to varying degrees.

    • Fair point with the typo of Kathleen for Katherine (I got it right in the footnote, so have no excuse), I’ve amended that. You’re also quite right about Bede, and I’ve corrected that too; I must have been thinking of Latin not as a spoken language for some anachronistic reason. And Carver counts 36 ogham inscriptions, I don’t know where I got 14 from and have also amended. All of these done with strikethrough so as to make it clear where my errors were. You may also be right about the sound change: it’s a long time since I read Jackson and I’m open to correction from a more recent source in the interim before I go and try and read my notes on him. As for the number of place-names, since there is disagreement on their derivation I thought it unwise to give a guess at numbers and I still do. I could move up to `a whole bunch’ if you like…

      As to the rest, though, we might have to discuss further. Ogham is (I presume I’m still right in saying this!) an Irish script, and preserved in areas like Cornwall where we have no reason to suppose Pictish influence spread but where Irish settlement could be reasonably supposed. Furthermore, Forsyth herself identifies several of the inscriptions as being written in Old Irish. If these are not foreign scribes, we need some reason to explain why Gaelic was their choice of language. The idea that it should somehow be ceremonial appeals, but Forsyth identifies others as being in Pictish, as she understands the term, so that seems unlikely. How would you explain these without importing either language or writer?

      As for the Pet-/Pit- names, how, exactly, would you hypothesize a Brittonic source? If we had more than one in Strathclyde (reading Strathclyde pretty generously) I might see that as a plausible origin, but we don’t. And, since the source can’t be Old Irish, we still need a P-Celtic origin and I don’t see where else you’d find Brittonic spoken so late. It must be late, because as you imply, we have here the paradox of P-Celtic names being picked up for use by Scots Gaelic speakers. I hadn’t realised that when I wrote this post, I will admit.

      My thinking has in fact changed somewhat since then on this issue, mainly because of reading the final chapter of Alex Woolf’s From Pictland to Alba (which suggests that the circumstance behind the formation of the names is a particular manorial-or-similar structure that Picts had but for which there was no Gaelic word because it didn’t occur further west), but also because of realising that really what these names are confined to, rather than any given political entity, Pictish or post-Pictish, is the good agricultural land around the coast. I no longer think their distribution very significant for any other reason, therefore, as it seems to me that they would probably occur more widely if land for large farms also did. The mountains are the limiting factor, not the Gaels. You’ll note that this is not incompatible with what Alex says, but we got there independently (he had also noticed this, but doesn’t remark on it in that chapter). So there I think I have good basis for retaining the Pictish connection to these names, even if the process by which they were created must necessarily be rather more complex than I imply in the post above.

    • Oh, yes, I can’t believe I didn’t spot the P > Q issue. PrC /k_w/ > Gaulish and British (and, plausibly) Pictish /p/, but remaining /k_w/ in Goidelic and Celtiberian. Depending on who you are, you believe more or less that the grouping of languages showing the change or not is more or less significant (in terms of reconstructing the break-up of Proto-Celtic). This P > Q change is, of course, likewise reflected in Italic: Latin preserves /k_w/ while Osco-Umbrian shows /k_w/ > /p/.

      • Well, there you go, I’m prepared to take you as a `more recent source’ and will correct again. I’m pretty sure something still remains, especially since none of this is actually what the post was about….

        • Just shows how much you need to mind your Ps and Qs when dealing with quiptic sources like this.

          (Sorry: couldn’t resist.)

        • Indeed :) this is just philologists nit-picking (or nit-quicking? Anyway …) since (to paraphrase Tigger) that’s what philologists do best-est. Still,if one were to take the whole thing to print, one would want to include appropriate bibliographical boilerplate referring readers off to P-&-Q-land.

          • Oh yeah, but although I have occasionally worked up things from this blog as papers, I can’t imagine this could ever be one of them. No historical journal would see anything new in what I say here and if the scientific community were interested in checking this sort of thing with historians or linguists it wouldn’t be in print (in RSPA, forsooth!) in the first place.

            I’m ignoring that, JPG. As hard as I can.

  7. Indeed. Katherine Forsyth’s PhD thesis (1997) deals with some 36 ogham inscriptions. I believe that she has published on some 3/4 others which have come to light in the intervening period. Ogham is a borrowed script. The medium may well be the Columban church but this is not certain. Gaelic is only the likely language in a very small number of ogham inscriptions found in Scotland e.g. the Buckquoy spindle whorl. Koch has drawn attention to various items which could cautiously be interpreted as Brittonic in many. There is no reason to suspect foreign scribes in most cases. Picts had accomplished carvers as demonstrated by the numerous ‘Class III’ stones and the beautifully executed symbols. In some cases the ogham inscriptions seem to form integral parts of the composition – they are not afterthoughts. Ogham is a borrowed script – this is standard. Assyrians, Greeks, Etruscans, Celts, Welsh, English.borrow scripts.

    You are quite right about the problems regarding the Pictishness of many place-names. A good place to start is Simon Taylor’s chapter in ‘Pictish Progress’ (Brill, 2010). Watson does note a great many and Nicolaisen’s work is crucial reading. I would also suggest BLITON (James, available through the SPNS webpage).

    ‘Pett’ is from Brittonic or Pictish. Before the imperium of Bridei son of Beli we don’t know where Pictish was spoken. A form of Brittonic could have been spoken in some areas south of the Mounth for example. James Fraser discusses a similar issue in that he sees ‘Pictish’ as referring to simply whatever form the Waerteras (sic) (Uerturiones, etc.) elite spoke. Of the 323 names in Pett noted by Watson (there are more now) not a single one is conclusively P-Celtic. They can all be Gaelic, in fact the specifics are almost all Gaelic. Some are ambiguous and could represent adaptations. If it were that common a Pictish place-name element we might expect a fair number to survive with demonstrably P-Celtic generics.

    • I think we mostly can’t get any further with this until your thesis is available in some form and the numbers and linguistics behind what you say have been assessed by others. I’m not qualified to judge assertions like “not… conclusively P-Celtic,” as they stand, even if you were to provide proof, and I’m too sceptical to accept them unquestioned. Besides, I think Alex’s theory allows a way in which names in Pett-/Pit- could represent something quite unusual even in Pictland, but still be Pictish, albeit as a kind of loan-word into Gaelic. An analogy would be the way that castrum was borrowed into Old English place-names; very few of the English -chesters also have Latin foreparts. (Do any?) The Pit- names must, however, simply because of the P-, originate partly in a P-Celtic word, and so they still serve the purpose of my argument against the RSPA article whenever they should be dated and by whomever they were coined. In fact, for those purposes alone, it would work perfectly well to have Gaelic and Pictish being spoken simultaneously in the same territories, and that must for a while have happened in many places. (Indeed, I used to argue it for Atholl on completely other grounds).

      As to this:

      Before the imperium of Bridei son of Beli we don’t know where Pictish was spoken. A form of Brittonic could have been spoken in some areas south of the Mounth for example.

      I don’t deny this at all, though saying that it could have happened doesn’t make it so. Fraser however also says that probably Picts were just the British beyond the Antonine Wall. In that case, if you want both of these cases, you presumably have to argue that Pictish was not necessarily spoken by only and all the people-identified-as-Picts-somehow. The elite theory gets you one way of doing that, but if it’s just an elite form it shouldn’t be perceptible as a separate language, e. g. by Bede, wouldn’t you agree? Perhaps you wouldn’t.

  8. The Pictish names are availabe in W.J. Watson (The Celtic Place-names of Scotland, 1926). The information is already available. As mentioned this is discussed by Simon Taylor (reference was provided in the previous email). Pictish Progress is available in libraries. This can all be investigated using the sources which I will use. I have no additional primary evidence so there really is no need to wait for any new publications.

    It’s Alex’s view that I have expounded. ‘Pett’ IS a loanword, this was explained in the previous note. It was used to coin names in the post-Pictish period, or at least when Pictish was in (terminal?) decline. I repeat – of the 323 (Watson’s number) of names in ‘Pett’ none are conclusively p-Celtic. This can be verified by going through the index of CPNS.

    The analogy with ‘chester’ may not be appropriate. ‘Pett’ was clearly borrowed into Gaelic, at least at least as a term used in landholding. It has also been proposed that it survived in a dialect word in ModGael but there is a challenge which I cannot discuss. A great many of the English ‘chesters’ have Latin (often from Celtic) specifics – many are probably half-translations from Brythonic (Dorchester, see EPN p. 148). I’m not sure if I follow this point.

    Periods of Pictish/Gaelic bilingualism is the accepted assumption. There is ample proof of it. E.g. an Irish bishop in Orkney and the statement (Adomnan, VC) which mention translators. There may be underlying Pictish influence on Gaelic. There is nothing new here.

    As we know very little about the early (complimentary) distribution of Pictish and Brythonic it cannot be entirely ruled out that ‘pett’ was borrowed from Brythonic. My opinion is that it probably came from Pictish, and that it reprented some form of particularly Pictish landholding pattern. Jackson in ‘The Pictish Language’ (published in Wainwright, The Problem of the Picts, 1955) briefly discusses the difficulties of ascertaining the particular p-Celtic origin of certain items.

    Regarding the quotation. Conditionals are used deliberately hence there is no suggestion that ‘it did happen’. The wording was chosen carefully. To agree with Fraser’s view (Alex’s is quite similar) you would have to disregard or disprove the twelve or so points Jackson and Koch (‘Loss of Declension…’, 1983) note as indicating that Pritenic (early Pictish) was diverging from Brittonic at an early point (first century at least. I use Brittonic/Brythonic to indicate different periods. The statement draws attention to the fact that we simply have no direct information concerning certain periods, therefore all that can neither be disproved nor argued to be highly improbable should be provisionally considered. The point is that there is a danger in back-projecting Bede’s statement. Taking Bede’s Pict/Briton division literally would have Dumbarton/Clach nam Bretan/Mugdock etc. were outside ‘Brittonia’ (my coinage). Being a brilliant historian does not necessarily make one a reliable historical linguist. Neither does being a historical linguist place one beyond criticism.

    Perhaps I have not explained my thoughts clearly. I do not know where the boundary between Pictish and Brittonic lay in the late seventh century or so. I have even less certainty regarding the previous centuries. I speculate that the linguistic situation regarding p-Celtic in northern Britain may have been more fluctuating and complex than has been allowed for in the past.

    There are however certain points which seem to distinguish the two languages e.g. non-fricativisation of voiceless stops after liquids (but see BLITON), the absence of w- > gw-.

    Do we have the evidence to investigate the role of the elite in language, or dialect, shift prior to Adomnan & Bede? I’m afraid I didn’t quite follow the elite issue – apologies.

    All I’m doing is flagging some of the assumptions made and their weaknesses. If anyone has any suggestions or comments regarding ‘Pictish’ I would be more than happy to discuss but I suspect that I would provide as many questions as answers!

    One little thing. I make the greatest attempt here not to provide views or information that cannot be verified by a visit to a university library – hence the references.

    • No, surely, and I appreciate the references which I will follow up when I return to working on this topic for probably the final time next year. It is certain that you’ve given me plenty to think about here. I’ve also been unclear, I think, in my reasoning around the term `loan-word’ here. Obviously there is P-Celtic in the Pett- names somewhere, even if only in ancestry. I guess that your point is that if the word was adopted into Gaelic then its distribution tells us nothing about where Pictish was spoken even if it ultimately came thence? I’d have to concede that and probably would have done sooner if not answering previous comments in the small hours. If Alex be right, then, we have here a tenurial question not a linguistic one. Well, OK, I can use that just as happily for what I want to do, not being the linguist. Thankyou for the rectification. Good point also with the -chesters; the only one I could call to mind for some reason was Winchester. I think the case is still analogous, but evidently not exclusively so.

      Élites: let me try and clarify my remarks above. You report Fraser, accurately in my eyes, as suggesting that Pictish proper might only have been the language of the élite section of the Waerteras, a coining I wish he didn’t use. I quite like this in some ways as it seems to me that such a culture group would make some sense of the distribution of symbol stones, although as you know from the argument that this post is actually about, rather than the one we’re having, I don’t think there are any grounds to suppose that the symbol stones somehow encode spoken Pictish. However, if it is solely an élite language, then there were presumably many supposed Picts who did not use `Pictish’. Even though Bede’s contacts in Pictland, actually very poor compared to his English informants, might well reflect only élite information (though not, one would have thought, the Fortriu élite, if Alex is right to relocate Fortriu as he seems to be accepted to be), some of them were concerned in ministry work and it seems very peculiar that he should have gained an impression that the Picts at large spoke this restricted offshoot of Brittonic if in fact they mostly spoke Brittonic (or indeed Gaelic). I agree that Bede was not necessarily a linguist, and that his eighth-century information may not reflect backwards very far, but he was in contact with people like Trumwine of Abercorn who would have had to deal with this issue of language on the ground.

      If I were to ask you a question myself that might help me get my head further round all this, it would probably be: how many languages do you think we should reckon on being spoken in Pictish political territory in, say, well why not the early eighth century, since our information clusters there? Pictish-as-you-define-it (if we can approach that), Brittonic, Gaelic, English, and maybe but probably not really remnants of something earlier (IE or non-IE depending on which linguist can be believed)? Or can it all, somehow, be roped in under a `Pictish’ linguistic umbrella? If the former, however many details I may have carried forward from 1926 unchecked, I really don’t mind as the argument of the post still stands. If the latter, I might have a problem to solve but we also definitely still have an argument to settle!

      Thankyou, also, for the increasing generosity and politeness of tone here. It did at first read as if you’d decided to turn this post’s comments into a personal stamping ground. And dammit, you can get your own blog for that :-)

  9. Oh, and excuse the poor editing, not to mention the spelling mistake, obviously Freudian :-)

  10. I agree regarding Waerteras is backformed from Waertermorum. Foirtriu (note spelling) is backformed from Ir forms e.g. Fortrinn/Fortrenn, gen. sg./pl etc.
    As Koch noted Foirtriu (<Uerturiu:) would mean a single Verturian.
    Difficult to coin a happy form as etymology is obscure.
    Tenurial – exactly.
    I go with Bede (at present). Different language, but possible not so different. Some think Bede's pro-Pictish and anti-Brythonic views played a part. I think there may be genuine evidence for diversity.
    Such blogs a minefield for discussion. So easy to appear rude. You get used to it!! Dangerous medium for that. Best just to ignore it.
    Regarding how many languages. I don't know. When was Pictish? And where? Limited evidence, and all mediated several, unspecified, times at different periods. Light refracted thru bubbly mis-shapen glass.
    I'm really not keen on non IE, simply because I don't see the evidence. Great scholars believe the ogham inscriptions cannot be Celtic. I do see their viewpoint, but prefer to put opinion on hold as other scenarios seem tenable.
    I doubt whether a leatherworker from Dunblane and a noblewoman from Yell could converse happily and at length with each other in 750.

  11. Pingback: The Attacotti – Britons, Gaels or Picts? – Part Two « badonicus

  12. David Etheridge

    Very interesting and condenses a very complex (as you know) argument into something most folk can get a handle on. I really enjoyed reading.

    Points on the distribution of the symbol stones. Firstly, some of the symbols also occur on portable wealth e.g. the Norrie’s Law hoard (RCAHMS NO40 NW 3), so we cannot assume these were in the possession of ‘Picts’ when buried, nor indeed need they be anywhere near their place of origin or previous use, in much the same way that a late Roman silver hoard on Traprain Law does not indicate a nearby wealthy Roman settlement. The majority of the symbol stones are blatantly not portable over great distances, so how does this move us on? The people who carved them were mobile, therefore the presence of a symbol at a particular location need not be equated with an ethnically ‘Pictish’ settlement, nor indeed a settlement area at all. The classic example would be the boar symbol carved into the rock at Dunadd in Argyll, the supposed seat of the Dal Riata (RCAHMS NR 89 SW1). Whatever the actual reasons for the symbols, I do not think anyone has claimed Dunadd as a Pictish settlement yet. If the P- place-name distribution is in any way indicative of Pictish settlement (though not necessarily defining its limits), then the discrepancy of distribution between symbol stones and place-names could be put down to the Dunadd phenomena – symbol stones could have been things the Picts were more likely to erect away from home. I shall leave the possibilities for interpretation this opens up to others.

    Taking another point re the Picts being ‘Iron Age’. This is not an unusual approach in Scottish Archaeology. Rome officially stopped at the Antonine Wall, so technically everything north of that was never Roman and is therefore classed as Roman Iron Age. Whatever happened south of the walls from AD 400 onwards appears to have little immediate effect north of the Forth-Clyde line – things appear to have carried on as normal. I have certainly heard Scottish archaeologists talking as if the Iron Age lasted into the 7th century, and with good reason.

    Moving on, one cannot address the symbol stones without considering both context and origins. Origins matter deeply. If the symbol stones are a purely home grown phenomena with no outside references then we may be stuck. What if they are an attempt to adapt a practice of writing on stone already known in southern Scotland from the 5th century and practised in Wales and Ireland at the same time too? If so then it is possible the symbol stones are for similar purposes, just not using the Latin script.

    This is where context comes in. Looking at the early Welsh and Southern Scottish inscribed stones, one can see three likely contexts for their use (and I bow to Nancy Edwards here). The obvious one is grave marker / tombstone, an example being the Catstane near Edinburgh Airport, inscribed ‘In this tomb lies Vetta, daughter of Victricus’, where a large number of burials were found in the immediate vicinity (RCAHMS NT17SW 1). If symbol stones were found associated with burials it would be reasonable to argue they are simply repeating the same basic formula, i.e. ‘here lies X, son (or daughter) of Y.

    Now the reality is most Welsh and Scottish inscribed stones are not found associated with burials (and conversely most burials of the period are not found associated with inscribed stones – true also in ‘Pictland’ – I base this on my own research data). Arguable some stones have been moved and are no longer in their original setting, but a considerable body appear never to have been directly associated with burials, yet still bear a similar formula ‘[the stone] of X son of Y’. These stones can be seen as memorials, possibly erected in the lifetime of the commemorated, not necessarily cenotaphs. They can therefore be erected anywhere that was considered appropriate at the time. I suspect most symbol stones may be of this kind, not directly related to burial but possibly commemorating individuals who were either alive or dead at the time of the carving. The Dunadd boar could fall into this category.

    The final context is a small group of inscribed stones that are found in upland places, sometimes associated with a known route. I think the formula matters less than the location. My favourite is the Caratacus stone on Winsford Hill, Exmoor, Somerset. The stone reads “CARAACI NEPVS”, ‘descendant of Caratacus’ (PastScape id=35777). The inscription dates from the 6th century and the stone was recorded in that location as early as the 13th century (ibid.). When excavated, no grave was found (or trace of settlement). The location is open moorland on a route to a ford over the River Exe. I think the most likely explanation for this group is that they functioned as boundary / territory markers. Symbol stones found in similar circumstances might also be seen in this light.

    It follows that studying the symbols without recourse to their original context may well be getting us nowhere in terms of ‘translation’. A picture of an American flag against a rocky background perhaps means little – until we learn that rocky background is the moon. Then suddenly it becomes deeply invested in our culture, understanding of ourselves, our personal and national histories, our emotions. All that meaning invested in a simple picture.

    • Thanks for this very generous reply. You will presumably know the old-fashioned but still entertaining explanation of the Dunadd boar as a kind of marker of conquest from the period in which Causantín mac Fergus seems to have controlled Dál Riata, and it is rather quaintly colonial but it does have the merit of having a plausible context and explaining something that is otherwise, as you demonstrate, an outlier. As to the association of stones with burials, I am just going to have to do the numbers here as opinions about what the ‘general’ case is seem to vary and of course, the occasional new finds continue to complicate the picture. The inverse point about most burials not having stones is important, of course, but in as much as it tells us the stones are a symptom of a restricted group, I think that this doesn’t affect but provides another way of supporting my position that they’re an élite cultural expression, not a ‘national’ one. Your memorial interpretation however frees things up a bit in any case; as you say, there’s lots of places a personal memorial might be appropriate to someone’s life cycle and Sueno’s Stone and the Aberlemno Stone, to name but two which presumably make such a public statement about a single occasion, help make that the more likely. Thankyou for giving me so much more to think about and with!

  13. Pingback: Lughnasad 2012 | Ellen Evert Hopman

  14. Pingback: Cool Stuff on Other Blogs « Medieval History Geek

  15. British Fire Hydrant H sign: The figure at the top is the size of the water main that feeds that hydrant in millimetres – so 75 mm. The lower figure is the distance from that plaque to where the hydrant is in metres, so 3 metres.

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