The ‘written’ symbols of the Picts were possibly inspired by the Romans

The Dunnicaer site at Canmore, Scotland. Credit: TheModernAntiquarian

Picts or Picti, as referred to by the Romans (meaning the ‘painted ones’, apparently because of their practice of painting or tattooing their bodies) were historically a people of Scotland who held their own against the Roman invaders from 3rd to 6th century AD. Ancient sources even make mention of how the Picts made audacious forays into Roman Britain (corresponding to modern England) to stem the tide of upward incursions of their enemies. And in spite of centuries of conflict, the ‘painted ones’ were possibly influenced by their longtime adversaries that went beyond the scope of warfare. To that end, according to a recent study, the Pictish written ‘language’, comprising symbols and patterns mostly carved on stone and metalworks, may have been inspired by the Romans.

In terms of history, the academic circle believes that the Picts existed as a confederation of tribes – more akin to the ‘super-tribe’ structure of the Huns, as opposed to a singular tribe. As for their symbols, there is a growing hypothesis that the aforementioned written patterns might have pertained to an early form of heraldic language (unfortunately still undeciphered). Now beyond the categorization as a proto-language, the debate in academia focuses on the origins of these Pictish symbols, with some conjectures alluding to how the ‘language’ was developed by the Picts in early middle ages (circa 7th-9th century AD) after the Romans left Britain.

However, recent archaeological excavations centered around sites with Pictish motifs, carried out by the Northern Picts Project, have revealed pieces of evidence that point to how the Pictish symbols were (possibly) centuries older than previously thought. For example, the Dunnicaer site with its remnants of a native fort structure has divulged Pictish stones (with symbols) dating from circa 2nd to 4th century AD. Yet another Pictish enclosure at the Rhynie site revealed stone symbols that were carved between 4th to 6th century AD.

The Serpent Stone representing one of the Pictish symbols. Credit: Shandchem

Consequently, based on the time frame and related research, the scientists have hypothesized that the Picts had possibly developed their pattern of symbol language by circa 3rd century AD. Moreover, these symbols were possibly at least partially influenced by the Romans who were known have a well-established written system during the era. However, as opposed to the Latin script, the Picts may have contrived their native writing style that was markedly different from the contemporary Roman language.

Interestingly enough, during this time period corresponding to roughly 3rd century, other cultures had also developed their written symbols, like the Ogham in Ireland and the Runes of Germanic Scandinavia. And similarly, like in the case of Scotland, these lands (and their realms) were never directly conquered by the Romans. But they did maintain trade and economic relations with the Romans and even earlier Mediterranean cultures – many of whom had their well-documented written language. In essence, the historical scope does suggest the possibility of Mediterranean languages influencing the development of written symbols in Northern Europe, if not by virtue of script but at least by virtue of literacy.

Unfortunately, on the linguistic level, the Pictish symbols are still undeciphered, mostly because of their characteristic ‘secluded’ patterns that not found along with decipherable texts of other languages. In other words, it is highly unlikely that the Pictish ‘language’ can be deciphered unless aided by a fortuitous evidence brought forth by ongoing archaeological excavations.

The study was originally published in the online journal Antiquity.

Via: LiveScience

Featured Image Source: TheModernAntiquarian

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About the Author

Dattatreya Mandal
Dattatreya Mandal has a bachelor's degree in Architecture (and associated History of Architecture) and a fervent interest in History. Formerly, one of the co-owners of an online architectural digest, he is currently the founder/editor of Realmofhistory.com. The latter is envisaged as an online compendium that mirrors his enthusiasm for ancient history, military, mythology, and historical evolution of architecture.
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