Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Long Post About The Picts, With Pictures

Those of you who have been following this blog from the bitter beginning may remember that I used to bang on quite a lot about the Picts (an enigmatic race of Celtic people who apparently populated the north and east of Scotland during the Dark Ages, and then mysteriously disappeared almost overnight).

More specifically, I used to go on about how I was going to resurrect the lost Pictish language by being the first to decipher the mysterious inscriptions carved on the monumental stones that the Picts erected in various places for purposes now unknown.

(You can read the full list of mysterious inscriptions in this post.)

In doing so, I would follow in the illustrious footsteps of Jean-François Champollion, who deciphered the Egyptian hieroglyphs, and Michael Ventris, who deciphered the Linear B inscriptions in his time off from being a Modernist architect. I would probably get my picture on the front cover of Archaeology Today and the National Geographic and I would never have to write brochures about human resources management software ever again.

But then along came a chap called Dr Richard Cox, who ruined the whole endeavour by suggesting - fairly convincingly - that the Pictish stones were not in fact set up by Picts but by the descendants of Viking settlers, and that the inscriptions weren't in some lost Pictish language but in Old Norse, and that what's more the Picts most likely never even existed, and neither did their language. Oh, and the stones weren't put up in the Dark Ages at all, but in the 13th century.


But all is not totally lost, because Dr Richard Cox's thesis has some bloody great holes in it. For a start, he only looks at the 'easy' inscriptions, and ignores the ones that don't make any sense whatsoever. He also takes some enormous liberties in some of his supposed 'decipherments', occasionally reading inscriptions from back to front in order to make them make more sense, and randomly filling in 'missing' letters in some of the very short inscriptions.

One of the inscribed stones that Dr Cox includes in his study is the Rodney Stone at Brodie, in the county of Moray. It so happened that I was in the vicinity of this stone at the weekend, and made a special trip to photograph it:

You probably can't see an inscription on this stone, because it's almost worn away. It *was* there, carved in Ogham script around the edge of the stone, but the harsh Scottish weather has had away with it. (I'm sure there used to be a little wooden roof to protect the stone from the worst of the elements, but that's now gone.)

All that's left of the inscription now is the word (or words) EDDARRNON. Dr Cox takes this word to be derived from Old Norse ettermun, meaning 'memory', or possibly etter, meaning 'in memory of'. He could be right, he could be wrong. Too bad we'll never know now what the rest of it said.

What you *can* still see on this stone is a couple of the mysterious symbols that appear over and over again on the Pictish stones. This one has a sort of dolphin figure (in the middle) and a double-disc and Z-rod (at the bottom). No one knows what these symbols mean, and no one has yet put forward any kind of convincing theory. A certain W. A. Cummins once tried to suggest that they symbolise names of Pictish kings and aristocrats, but that's really just speculation.

Here's the full lexicon of Pictish symbols for anyone who's interested:

(Image courtesy of Aberdeen City Council)

As far as I know, no one has ever made a proper study comparing the Ogham inscriptions on each stone with the symbols that appear on it. Maybe I'll make that my new project.


james henry said...

There, I said no-one was to worry.

Patroclus Cannot Stay Away From The Blogging. Although she seems to have unnaccountably left out the photo where I am pointing at the stones in my role as Glamorous Assistant.

spence said...

Hurrah and huzzah!

Annie said...


You made my day.

Anonymous said...

"All that's left of the inscription now is the word (or words) EDDARRNON. Dr Cox takes this word to be derived from Old Norse ettermun, meaning 'memory', or possibly etter, meaning 'in memory of'."

It's been forgotten!


I'm glad you're back, I was worried I was going to have to hold elections for the new patron saint of blogging.

belladona said...

Hurrah! Also, I'm glad there are big holes in that chap's theory. I must admit that when I went to Sweden the other year and saw some viking inscriptions I was struck by some similarities, but only in a basic way - I know little of either culture and they are close geographically but I feel it is more likely that there may have been cross-cultural exchange rather than the picts just didn't exist. One day I shall have to study properly.

Hannah said...


(See? It merits no fewer than four exclamation marks, which is a big deal, because I don't like to use them at all.)

Vicus Scurra said...

Do any of these people know what my blog needs?

patroclus said...

Oh, tush and fie. Does anyone have a good recipe/method for puff pastry?

Marsha Klein said...

Hooray, you're back!

I haven't made puff pastry since I was at school but I believe Delia's Quick and Easy Flaky pastry gives good results.

P.S. You have a new baby AND the time/inclination to make your own puff pastry? My admiration knows no bounds. Really.

Tim Footman said...

I was worried that it was going to be like This Life, when we waited for 10 years for the return, and it was all a bit pants.

But no! She's back and she Picting! Yay!

But this time, are you played by Christopher Ecclestone?

scroobious said...

We might have guessed it would be the Picts that would bring you back. (Yay!)

Belladona said...

Wouldn't you rather buy the frozen stuff?

patroclus said...

Yes, having looked into the whole puff pastry issue, it does seem to be an incredible amount of hassle. I'll probably just buy frozen after all.

Tim: No, I'm played by Daniela Nardini.

realdoc said...

So glad you're back. My girls school song features a line about squashing the Pictish hordes which is alays sung with great relish.

Annie said...

Having read your post with more attention, I just realised that for the past three weeks I have been telling the kids that the Celts had NO WRITTEN LANGUAGE, and didn't write stuff down(unlike the clever Romans.) I shouldn't be allowed near young minds.

patroclus said...

Annie - no, you're right, I think 'Celts' means the indigenous British people of prehistoric times, who had no written language. So the Picts were a Celtic people (i.e. descended from Celts) but not Celts as such. I think Belladona knows more about it than I do, though.

Annie said...

Phew! *tears up letter of resignation*

Sylvia said...

Good grief, P.
Yes Delia's easy flaky pastry is fine, but so is buying some all butter puff pastry from the supermarket. Waitrose has a special offer on their own brand frozen stuff - two slabs in one box for £2.00. Made a quiche with one slab. Or there's Saxby from the butter shelf. or there's Sainsbury's taste the difference puff pastry. The time you save you can spend blogging.

wv - punsa. Is that a bad thing?

Boz said...

Well thank heavens.

Boz said...

And now I've actually read the post - how fascinating!