Scotland’s Pict society, which existed between 300 and 843, created elaborate rock engravings, known now as Pictish Stones. The engravings, once thought to be a form of art, have recently been identified as a written language.
“We know that the Picts had a spoken language to complement the writing of the symbols, as Bede writes that there are four languages in Britain in this time: British, Pictish, Scottish and English,” said Rob Lee, who worked on the report in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. “We know that the three other languages were — and are — complex spoken languages, so there is every indication that Pictish was also a complex spoken language.”
Lee and his colleagues Phillip Jonathan and Pauline Ziman, of the University of Exeter, studied the engravings using a mathematical process in order to analyze order and direction in each stone. The data was compared with various other written languages, including Egyptian hierolgyphs, Chinese, and Old Norse; the results showed that the Pictish Stones contained characteristics of writing based on a spoken language.
“It is unclear at the moment whether the [other surrounding] imagery, such as the knots, form any part of the communication,” Lee said. He also added that what they have discovered so far “does not amount to deciphering” the ancient Pictish writing. “We will have to wait for the discovery of what would be the Pictish equivalent of the Rosetta Stone, which made possible the cracking of the Egyptian hieroglyphic code,” he said. “This may or may not ever happen.”