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The Mystery of the Indecipherable Pictish Stones

By Alison at Accredited Language
Posted on Monday, August 30, 2010
Category: History, History, Science, Science

The examination of Pictish stones from Scotland raised a great deal of excitement in 2010 when researchers analyzed more than 200 of the engraved stones, which depict a still-untranslated written language of ancient Scotland.

Although researchers initially hoped that they would be able to learn more about the Pictish stones and even be able to eventually decipher them, the mystery surrounding these ancient stones has only deepened.

Basics of the Pictish Stones

The stone engravings of the Pictish language system are thought to date back to around the year 300. Researchers believe that the rocks were carved by an ancient people of Scotland known as the Picts, who inhabited the country from around the 4th to 9th centuries.

Early research on the Pictish stones suggested that they were lexigraphic (meaning that they were based on a spoken language) instead of semasiographic (where the written language serves as the basis for a spoken language). More information about the important distinction between the two can be found in our blog post on early language evolution.

Controversy Surrounding the Pictish Stones

Currently, many researchers are claiming that the symbols depicted on the Pictish stones are probably words, rather than images. The initial team of researchers, led by Professor Rob Lee of Exeter University, examined the symbols on the stones and used a mathematical method to determine patterns among the symbols.

Based on his results, Lee and his colleagues concluded that the symbols on the Pictish Stones communicated information as words, not pictures. Although Lee’s research has yet to decipher any of the stones, he believes that once a more comprehensive visual catalog of the stones and their symbols is created, the Pictish language will finally be decipherable.

However, this claim has been met with criticism from some linguists, including French linguist Arnaud Fournet. Fournet pointed out that Lee’s approach assumed the carvings to be “linear symbols.” A research approach based on this assumption would possibly have biased results.

Looking for the Pictish Rosetta Stone

Although research efforts concerning the Pictish stones are by no means lacking, it’s highly unlikely that researchers will ever successfully decipher the stones. They have already admitted that this would likely require the discovery of a Pictish stone comparable to the Rosetta Stone, which permitted researchers to understand Egyptian hieroglyphic writing. (Since it contained the same text in hieroglyphics as well as ancient Greek, it established a basis for understanding the glyphs.)

This is the case for any complex written language: some sort of “key” has to be established or discovered if the language is to be accurately deciphered. A very simple written language may not necessarily require such a key, but the more complex a language is, the more it depends on a key to be fully understood. Even the use of complex mathematical algorithms and pattern-detection can’t be a guaranteed means of deciphering, as the Pictish stone controversy proves.

One Response to “The Mystery of the Indecipherable Pictish Stones”

  1. Richard Says:

    The Pictish Symbols have finally been deciphered and their secret meaning will soon be published (January 2012. The incredible findings will be extremely controversial as they indicate that the earliest Class I symbol stones were actually carved around 1160BC.

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