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Information-age math finds code in ancient Scottish symbols

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Hilton of Cadboll stone with Pictish symbolsIn the northern British Isles, the Celtic tribes known as the Picts coexisted for centuries alongside literate cultures such as the Romans, the Irish and the Anglo-Saxons.

"They were the odd society out, in that they didn’t leave any written record," says Rob Lee of the University of Exeter in England, save for some mysterious-looking sets of symbols on stones and jewels. In a paper published March 31 online in Proceedings of the Royal Society A, Lee and his coworkers now claim that the symbols are written language. Perhaps the Picts were not illiterate after all.

Pictish inscriptions—of which fewer than 500 remain, each not more than a few symbols long—have puzzled archaeologists for a century, Lee says. Could they be religious imagery? Tribe names? Or perhaps coats of arms? "Only in the last decade people have asked the question, ‘Are they a language?’" he adds.

Lee’s team attacked the problem with math. Written languages are distinguishable from random sequences of symbols because they contain some statistical predictability. The typical example is that, in the English language, a "q" is nearly certain to be followed by a "u"; and a "w" is much more likely to be followed by an "h" than, say, by an "s" or a "t".

This predictability is measured by the notion of Shannon entropy, one of the keystone concepts of information theory. (Shannon entropy explains for example why one can compress computer files into Zip archives, and puts a hard limit on how much they can be compressed.)
Norrie's Law plaques
Lo and behold, the Shannon entropy of Pictish inscriptions turned out to be what one would expect from a written language, and not from other symbolic representations such as heraldry. "The paper shows that the Pictish symbols are characters of a lexicographic written language," Lee says, "as opposed to the most general form of writing, which includes things like the [non-verbal] instructions on your Ikea flat packs."

A different team used a similar technique last year to suggest that the script of the Indus Valley civilization, which flourished between 2600 and 1900 B.C., is also a written language.

But how about actually translating the mysterious scripts? The statistical methods unfortunately are not too helpful yet. And there is no Rosetta stone for deciphering Pictish script. But, Lee says, there are about a dozen stones that contain some very short inscriptions together with some Latin script, which might help interpret the language, at least in part. He adds: "I am somewhat hopeful that we may be able to do it."


Images: A Pictish stone showing symbols that may have been part of a written language (top)

Pictish silver plaques showing a "double disk and Z rod" symbol and a dog/seal’s head symbol (bottom)

Credit for both is Rob Lee

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  1. 1. hotblack 7:44 pm 03/31/2010

    Interesting. Some of the earliest traces of mankinds handiwork are in those isles. It always seemed strange to think they were a culture longer than most, yet never developed a written language. Shows what we know…

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  2. 2. canadiannokedli 10:44 pm 03/31/2010

    it’s hard to make out details but I definitely see motifs that are present on articles and documents connected to Hungarian culture from 2000 or more years ago. In fact I’m willing to bet on that connection. Some of the latest research is starting to show that the holy grail, the ‘proto Indo european’ language may have survived as the living fossil now known as Hungarian. There exists significant resistance to this idea, but time and time again I see 2,000- 30,ooo year old texts, some of which is readable without translation in Hungarian. Look into Mario Alinei for the Etruscan connection.

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  3. 3. canadiannokedli 10:54 pm 03/31/2010

    The Moscow mathematical papyrus might give you another jolt from Egypt. Compare the runic script letter L (Lo- horse)to the ancient 5000+ year old chinese symbol for horse… I could go on…

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  4. 4. tuhinkumardutta 1:32 pm 04/1/2010

    This are the symbols of the Hunters Tribe whose main occupation was hunting Deers and Seals and Whales. On land and at Sea .

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  5. 5. Extremophile 5:03 pm 04/1/2010


    Look at their weapons. They were not hunters but warriors, hunters do not carry shields or bucklers.

    And the rider on top of the image is actually two riders, one hidden behind the other. Hunter do not ride in ranks – honestly, they normally don’t ride at all, except in Wild West movies – but soldiers do.

    The dogs (wolves?) killing the deer(?) could symbolize some violent act, maybe the defeat of another tribe?

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  6. 6. Microbe 12:53 pm 04/2/2010

    Why is the bottom image presented upside down?

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  7. 7. Microbe 12:55 pm 04/2/2010

    Why is the bottom image presented upside down? It would be easier to review if the image was rotated 180 degrees.
    Don’t believe me? Take a look at the numeral 1 in the upper portion of the image, it too is upside down.

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  8. 8. Luna Azule 4:01 pm 04/3/2010

    Such delicate protection against harm, could only have been used as good luck charms from the people the soldiers were fighting for.
    The soldiers who carried these into battle, relied on mental and physical strength, not beautifully designed, light weight metal.
    Another fact making me proud to have such ancestors.

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  9. 9. Extremophile 5:30 am 04/4/2010


    the shields I was talking of are carried by the men in the top photo, on the stone relief.

    The photo at the bottom shows some little dangling items, more like decoration than weaponry. I agree to Microbe (we are obviously related), they must be upside down.

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  10. 10. bucketofsquid 5:34 pm 04/6/2010

    Looking at the silver images right way up you see that the Z shapes end in corn stalks. I thought corn originated in North America. How would Picts know about a North American plant? Where they perhaps far more advanced than their enemies portayed them?

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  11. 11. shorter 9:41 pm 04/15/2010

    The corn head, and the stalk style, occur in many cereals, of greater or lesser stature. Remember corn was wheat. Maize was named Corn because of its resemblance.

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  12. 12. shorter 9:56 pm 04/15/2010

    I’m sure the instruction said my comment would be entered right after I registered. Why wasn’t it? Why do I have to write it again? Like your typeface by the way! Comment: Corn ears , and corn stalks, are very similar to the stalks and ears of other cereals and grasses. In Europe Corn was the name for wheat and similar foods. The colonists named Maize, Corn, because it looked so familiar

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  13. 13. Dr.Kamlander 8:49 pm 05/22/2010

    All my best wishes for a recovery , We would loose a brilliant mind and human being

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  14. 14. pictishbeastie 5:06 pm 06/24/2011

    It really is quite bizarre that the only "expert" you could find on the subject of the Picts is an English academic at an English university? The fact that my Pictish ancestors didn’t leave much written material doesn’t mean they were illiterate and I don’t even have the foggiest idea why you ever thought they were,how incredibly insulting and ethnocentric of you! Have any of you self appointed experts actually ever been to Scotland and seen a Pictish stone in its landscape? There really is an awfy pile o’ keich oot there aboot the Picts! p.s. Your photo of the Norrie’s Law plaques is dreadful,I’m sure the nice fowk at the Museum of Scotland would have opened the glass case for real academics!!!

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