Can You Decode Them?
by Janet Brennan
Picture this: The year is a.d. 610. You are a farmer in Scotland, walking along a path as you search for your lost cow. Suddenly you come upon a large rock standing on end alongside the path. It has three images carved on it. The top picture is a fish, below that is something that looks like a tuning fork lying on its side, and at the bottom is a hand mirror and a double-sided comb. You know what message these three carvings convey.
Now, imagine this: The year is 2004. You are a tourist vacationing in Scotland. As you drive through the northeastern part of the country, you see a tall stone standing upright along the roadside. It has three figures carved on it. The top image is two connected discs with a backwards Z bisecting it, below that is a snake also bisected with a Z, and at the bottom is a hand mirror. You have no idea what these symbols mean.
You decide to search out other similar stones, to try to discern a pattern. But you would need months to see them all, as Scotland has more than 250 of these things, known as Pictish symbol stones. Complicating your new hobby further: more of them are being discovered all the time, turned up by plows or found recycled as foundation stones in old houses being demolished. So you decide to limit your research to books and let anthropological experts explain the meaning of the symbols to you. Bad choice—the experts don’t know what they mean, either.
Not only are the symbols an enigma, but likewise the reason why they were carved on rocks that were then erected in public places. Scholars know only the symbol stones’ very approximate dates—from the mid-sixth century a.d. through the eighth century; their location—northeastern Scotland and its northern islands of Orkney and Shetland; and what people made them—the Picts. Beyond that, it’s all conjecture.
Who Were the Picts?
During the third century a.d., four Celtic tribes in eastern Scotland joined together as one nation. The Romans occupying Britain at that time called them Picti, Latin for “the painted ones,” apparently because they painted or tattooed their bodies. Like all Celts, they were farmers and cattlemen but also fierce warriors, making many raids on the Roman soldiers garrisoned along Hadrian’s Wall and preventing the Romans from ever conquering northern Britain.
Most of what we know of the Picts comes to us from Roman authors writing during Rome’s occupation of Britain, and later from Christian church historians. The Picts themselves left virtually no written records. Only one of their manuscripts survives, and that is merely a list of kings’ names. Also surviving are some inscriptions carved on stone in Ogham, the writing system developed by the Irish in the fifth century. But the Ogham words are undecipherable because they are in the Pictish language, which is now lost to us.
All that remains of Pictish society today are the remnants of their houses and hill forts, some archaeological artifacts such as jewelry and tools, and the hundreds of beautifully carved symbol stones.
The Pictish kingdom came to an end in the 800s. Its official demise occurred in the year 843, when a Scot became king of both the Scots and the Picts and Pictland became Scotland. (The Scots were a tribe from northern Ireland who immigrated to the west coast of what would become Scotland in the early 500s.) The Picts were also pressured by the Vikings, who were establishing settlements in the north, in the west, and on the northern islands. During the ninth century, the Picts gave up their language, art, and customs and adopted the ways of their Scottish and Viking overlords. By 900, the Pictish culture was gone.
The Mysterious Stones
Despite the demise of Pictish society, their symbol stones have stood for well over a thousand years, a mute and mysterious testament to their lost culture.
Symbol stones were made during the height of the Pictish kingdom. The earliest that have been found date from the mid-500s. The early stones had shallow, relatively crude carvings done on rough, natural boulders. The designs were laid out by pecking dots onto the stone with an iron hammer and punch, then connecting the dots by pocking a continuous groove. The pocked groove was then smoothed by rubbing with a small stone harder than the rock being sculpted.
As time went on, the sculptors began to first shape and dress the stone into a smooth rectangular slab, and later they began carving in relief to make the design stand out from the background. The latest stones, done in the 700s, are carved in deep relief and the designs are still sharp and clear today.
In addition to the improved technique, the images also evolved with the passing centuries, mirroring the Picts’ changeover from a pagan to a Christian culture. The early stones featured the enigmatic symbols we will discuss shortly, done on stones with plain, unadorned backgrounds. Later, as Irish monks began to Christianize the Picts, the stones began to feature a large cross with biblical scenes carved in the spaces above and below the cross’s arms. Carvings also became more intricate. The stones that feature large crosses were made in the 700s, and are called cross slabs. Eventually, in the 800s, the cross slabs gave way to free-standing crosses.
The reason why the Picts erected so many symbol stones over such a large area (some 300 miles in length by 200 miles in width) and over a period of more than 200 years is still not known. Archaeologists have put forth various theories, but each of them has its flaws:
• Were they tombstones? Not likely; of the more than 250 known symbol stones, only a few are on or near burial cairns.
• Were they monuments to commemorate some event? Some that show hunting scenes or battle scenes may be, but the vast majority are simply different combinations of the same mysterious symbols, so probably not.
• Were they boundary markers, showing the territory of a certain tribe? It seems unlikely: wouldn’t each stone have a special symbol unique to its tribe, rather than the same symbols appearing on stones over almost half of Scotland?
• Anthropologist Anthony Jackson has proposed that the stones are public statements of marriage alliances between lineages. According to his theory, the two top symbols on a stone represent the clans of the man and the woman, while the mirror-and-comb symbol so often seen as the third and final image illustrates the dowry paid. Again, the flaw in this theory is the fact that the same symbols appear over a very large area.
• The government puts out tourist brochures on the stones that state: “Although many theories have been devised to explain the symbol stones, they are most likely to have been erected as personal memorials, showing the rank of a recently deceased chief, and giving to his descendants a title or form of claim to the land around the stones.” The mirror-and-comb is regarded as a female symbol and is thought to signify that it was the dead chief’s wife who erected the stone in his honor. Again, this theory’s flaw is the ubiquity of the symbols over a wide area.
Perhaps complicating the search for the stones’ purpose is the fact that the symbols do not only appear on rocks; some of them have been found decorating small, everyday objects such as jewelry and game- playing pieces. The same symbols have also been found carved on the walls of caves in coastal cliffs.
After examining dozens of symbol stones and reading all I could find on the topic, I’ve formed my own opinion about the stones’ purpose and the symbols’ meaning. It’s a theory that seems obvious to me, yet seems not to have been considered by the anthropological experts. I’ll share my thoughts below, after we take a look at the most common symbols.
The Lost Code
Some symbol stones have recognizable images: animals (fish, birds, bulls, deer, boars, wolves) and people. The people are almost always men, and they are usually depicted hunting or in battle, often on horseback. Later, after Irish monks had Christianized the country, the animals became more stylized and fantastic, and the warriors and hunters gave way to depictions of monks, saints, and biblical scenes such as Daniel in the lions’ den.
Some of the animals signified special traits in Celtic societies: the salmon was a symbol of wisdom, the bull meant strength, the snake signified healing powers or the underworld, and the eagle could be a sky god.
But the most common images on the stones are abstract symbols, found only in Pictland and nowhere else in the extensive Celtic world. Following are the most common Pictish symbols, whose meanings can be hypothesized but not proved:
Crescent and V-rod: This looks like a crescent moon, but almost always carved with its tips pointing downward. The crescent is decorated, and the decorations differ from stone to stone. A V-shaped rod cuts the crescent in three. Scholars think the V-rod represents a broken arrow and the crescent a shield, signifying the death of a king or warrior. This theory sounds good, but I see one problem with it: Picts used round or, less often, square shields, so if this is a head-on view of a shield, it should not look like a crescent. When warriors are depicted on the stones in profile, their round shields are carved as crescents, but they are much thinner than the crescent in this symbol. And certainly the side of the shield would be much too thin to have the elaborate decorations always seen on the crescent symbol.
Double disk and Z-rod: Two equal-sized disks, usually decorated, connected to each other with two or more lines. A backwards Z cuts through the connector lines. The Z has a tip on one end and small lines coming off the sides at the opposite end. Experts think the Z represents a twice-broken spear; to me it looks like a stalk of wheat, with the seed head at top and roots at the bottom. The current favorite interpretation of the double disk is that is represents a horse bridle and bit. Together with the “broken spear” the image is thought to, again, signify the death of a king.
Here’s why I find this interpretation flawed: The double disk and Z-rod and the crescent and V-rod often appear on the same stone. Scholars think both these images represent the death of a king. If the stone was erected as a memorial by the king’s widow, why would she bother to commission two symbols that both mean the same thing?
My theory: The double disk is more likely a sun or moon symbol. Two disks connected together could signify, say, the time span between two full moons. And since the “spear” looks to me more like a plant, perhaps the symbol means: “Plant your crops in the time between two full moons.”
Serpent and Z-rod: A realistically carved, undulating snake, with the middle of the Z going under and over its body, or sometimes entirely behind the body. The serpent is a magical symbol of death or healing. It sometimes appears without the Z, but more often with it. The Z is on its side, a different orientation from when it appears with the double disk. In this image, scholars again read the Z-rod as a broken spear.
This symbol often appears together with either the double disk and Z-rod or the crescent and V-rod, so again it seems to me redundant to have two symbols signifying death. I wonder if the snake could represent a river, which the Celts worshiped as a divine being.
Mirror and comb: Sometimes the mirror appears alone, but much more often it is together with a double-sided comb. The mirror resembles a type of hand mirror made of polished bronze that was common in the late Iron Age, about 2,000 years ago, and still in use during Pictish times. The comb is typical of combs made of bone that have been found at Pictish house sites. The symbol is thought to signify a woman. (The handle of the mirror sometimes looks exactly like the double-disk symbol.)
Triple disk and cross bar: A large circle, with two small, round “handles” on either side of it and a line going through all three. Scholars are unanimous in interpreting this as a cauldron, viewed from above. The two small circles are lugs and the bar would support the cauldron over the fire.
Pictish beast: A four-legged mammal with a long snout, a tail, and a long crest on its head. It appears to be swimming because its two front legs are always higher than the back legs, as opposed to other animals that are always carved with all four feet flat on the ground. And its feet are rounded spirals, obviously not practical for standing on. The earlier hypothesis was that it depicted a “swimming elephant,” drawn by someone who had never actually seen one. Now the scholars are moving away from that theory, referring to it only as a unique “Pictish beast” and noting that the long snout suggests a dolphin.
Dolphins are often seen in the waters around Scotland, so surely the Picts would have known they have no legs. I have my own theory about this strange beast.
St. Columba, an Irish monk, came to Scotland in 563 on a mission to convert the Picts to Christianity. In 565, he visited King Bridei in his fortress near the River Ness, which is at the northern end of Loch Ness. While in the area, Columba encountered the “water beast” in Loch Ness and ordered it not to eat one of his followers. This event, in 565, is history’s earliest recorded mention of the Loch Ness monster.
King Bridei gave Columba the island of Iona on which to build a monastery. Columba lived on Iona for the rest of his long life, while his monks went throughout Pictland setting up churches and monasteries. Naturally his monks would have told the Picts whom they were trying to convert about their leader’s many miracles. Columba, who was probably a Druid before his own conversion, had the typical Druidical powers of second sight, healing, and performing magic. But of Columba’s supernatural powers, probably the one that most resonated with the Picts was his power over their own Loch Ness water beast. I believe they immortalized his miracle on their symbol stones, carving the tame-looking creature (which none of them had ever seen) and giving it a mammal’s body and a dolphin-like head.
Starting with the arrival of Columba and other Irish monks in the mid-500s, the Picts slowly became Christianized, and by about 620 most people in Pictland belonged to the Celtic Church. Later, during the 700s, the Picts would carve representations of biblical miracles on their cross slabs. Interestingly, the “swimming elephant” also shows up on these Bible-oriented cross slabs—proof, I think, that it represents a Christian miracle.
Cracking the Code
The possibility that the enigmatic “Pictish beast” may in fact depict one of Scotland’s first Christian miracles led me to wonder if the other Pictish symbols could have religious connotations as well, though these symbols from the early stones would of course refer to the Picts’ pre-Christian, pagan religion. To my surprise, the more I researched this idea that the stones had a religious purpose, the more evidence I found to support it.
The first clue to the stones’ religious significance is their location. Illogically, the same government publications that theorize the stones were merely boundary markers also mention that they were “often placed near much older sacred sites.” Many of the stones that are still in their original location are in sight of, but a distance from, Pictish hill-forts. Pagan Celtic people did not have churches or temples but worshiped nature in the open, usually in oak groves or at sacred springs. It is probably significant that the stones are not found within the confines of the tribe’s hill fort—the logical place for a chief’s memorial or a marriage announcement—but rather outside it, perhaps in their Druids’ sacred oak grove.
As Irish monks worked their way throughout Pictland, they set up their churches in the Picts’ sacred places. The result today is that many of the symbol stones are found in old churchyards or incorporated into the ancient church itself. One example of this is at the church in Tullich. A stone bearing the double disk and Z-rod, swimming elephant, and mirror had been built into the wall of the church, but is now in a small enclosure against the church wall. In Birnie, a Pictish stone with just two symbols, an eagle and the notched rectangle with Z-rod, stands at the gate into the churchyard.
Another eagle stone was built into St. Peter’s Church in Inveravon. This stone has a disk with rectangular handle, an eagle, and a mirror and comb. When the church was demolished in the early 1800s, the stone was placed on a wall of the new church, along with three other stones that had stood in the old churchyard. Two of these stones feature the Pictish beast.
If the stones served as boundary markers or statements of land claims, why would they have been placed at sacred sites? And why would newly arrived monks feel the need to put them in their churches? I think their location provides a clear clue that they had a religious purpose.
Another religious link is their evolution into cross slabs. A collection of cross slabs at St. Vigeans’ Church in Arbroath contains many examples of the abstract Pictish symbols decorating Christian cross slabs. One cross slab has the mirror, serpent and Z-rod, and an eagle. Another has the crescent, double disk and Z-rod, and mirror and comb along with animals, hunting scenes, and an angel. One interesting cross slab shows a monk or priest and behind him his pastoral staff and a double disk. “It is interesting to note this association of the double disk, the crosier, and the monkish figure. There must have been some obvious connection,” the brochure published by the St. Vigeans Museum states.
I agree, and that “obvious connection” has got to be a religious one. The current scholarly interpretation of the double disk as representing a horse’s bridle begs the question: Why would someone sculpt a bridle onto a Christian cross?
The Irish missionaries used these cross slabs as “sermons in stone,” placing them in the open air and using the biblical scenes engraved on the slab to illustrate their sermons. It’s illogical to think that symbols connoting a land boundary or a marriage would be placed alongside, say, Daniel in the lions’ den and used as a “visual aid” for a priest’s sermon.
Once the cross slabs became the sculpture of choice in the 700s, the purely pagan symbol stones of the 500s and 600s were no longer made. If they had served a secular purpose such as land markers, this would not be the case. The evolution from symbol stones into cross slabs and finally high crosses only makes sense if the symbol stones were religious objects.
If we accept that the stones served a religious or mystical purpose, then we can try to decipher the meanings of the symbols in that context. The experts believe the snake symbolizes the underworld or healing powers; the salmon, wisdom; and the eagle, a sky god. In my research I have discovered mystical connotations for even more of the symbols.
Take, for example, the mirror and comb. There is a thousand-year-old church in Cornwall, England, that has a carving of a mermaid holding a mirror in one hand and a comb in the other. Homer Sykes in his book Mysterious Britain writes that “She is the symbol of Aphrodite—the goddess of love and beauty who came from the sea.” Could it be that the mirror-and-comb combination was Celtic shorthand for their goddess of beauty?
Another Celtic goddess was Epona, who originally was a goddess of fertile soil but evolved in France and Italy into the protectress of horses and horse riders. She is always portrayed wearing a diadem and sitting side-saddle on a horse.
Interestingly, the only figure of a woman I know of on a symbol stone is wearing a diadem and is sitting side-saddle on a horse. She appears on an eighth-century stone called the Hilton of Cadboll, now in the Royal Museum of Scotland. This elaborately decorated stone shows the woman riding above two horsemen and their hounds in what is presumed to be a hunting scene. A mirror and comb float in front of her horse. Could this stone be an invocation to Epona, asking her to bless the horses and riders as they hunt?
One god common throughout the Celtic world was Teutates, who required sacrifices by drowning. A silver bowl called the Gundestrup Cauldron, made probably in France during the second century, shows a giant Teutates plunging a soldier head first into his divine cauldron, thereby giving the victim immortality. A somewhat similar image appears on a cross slab in the St. Vigeans Museum. A man is suspended head downward over a rectangular pot. Four monks are flanking him.
Another possible image of a sacrifice to Teutates appears on the Glamis Manse stone, one of Scotland’s earliest surviving cross slabs. On the left side of the cross is carved a cauldron hanging from a frame, with the legs of two victims sticking out of the top of the cauldron. To the right of the cross is the triple disk, believed to represent a cauldron viewed from above—the last thing a sacrificial victim would see as he’s being plunged head first into the pot.
A similar triple-disk cauldron appears on the back of a cross slab in the churchyard at Aberlemno. The front of this slab is pure Celtic Christian: an ornate cross with intricate, entwined Celtic animals decorating the slab. The back side of the slab has no Christian symbols but shows nine warriors in a battle scene, and at the top of the stone is the cauldron viewed from above and a notched rectangle with Z-rod. Perhaps the cauldron means the soldiers sacrificed their lives to Teutates.
In Mysterious Britain, Homer Sykes says “the code to decipher these symbols has never been broken.” Although the exact meaning of these Dark Age symbols may remain forever a mystery, I believe I have begun to break the code.
The Picts, like all Celts, worshiped many gods—mostly nature spirits who have no physical image that can be drawn or sculpted. The mysterious symbols may have been as close as the Picts could get to depicting them.
Images such as the cauldron and the mirror-and-comb may symbolize Celtic gods and goddesses.
Other images may refer to their rituals. Just as a Catholic church may have a stained glass window showing a Bible and a chalice, so the symbol stones may also have had pictures of ritual objects sacred to the Picts. The crescent, for example, may be not a warrior’s shield, but the golden sickle the Druids used in their ritual harvesting of the sacred plant, mistletoe, as described by Pliny the Elder.
Considering the stones’ placement at sacred sites and their evolution into Christian crosses, I feel they are not boundary markers or personal memorials—the symbol stones were the Picts’ religious icons.
I’m no expert, but that’s my theory. What do you think?
Janet Brennan is a writer and editor in Portland, Maine. While searching for Pictish stones, she circled Loch Ness, where her husband saw something large and dark break the surface of the water.