The Picts were a confederation of tribes who inhabited northern Scotland in the Dark Ages, between 1,700 and 1,100 years ago. Their name comes from the Latin word "picti", which literally translates to "painted people" and was first adopted by Roman writer and orator Eumenius. Rumor has it, this is because they "painted" themselves in blue tattoos from head to toe but the evidence for this is scant. In fact, there is little evidence of them full stop. The first mention of them is in Eumenius' 297 CE text but they themselves left no written record.
Or so we thought. While the Picts didn't leave any text in the traditional sense, they did leave behind some 200 stone slabs covered in ornate carvings of animals and geometric shapes (called Pictish symbols). According to new data published in the journal Antiquity, these stone slabs are older than we thought – and they might just reveal a novel system of writing.
The problem with stone slabs is that they cannot be radio-carbon dated using traditional methods based on the decay rate of organic matter. Instead, in the past, archaeologists have relied on the historical consensus stating that rocks displaying carved symbols in this part of the world tend to date to the fifth century CE. Now, archaeologists at the University of Aberdeen have teamed up with experts at the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre in Glasgow to carbon date objects found alongside the stones to (indirectly) estimate the age of the carvings.
"Establishing an outline chronology through a combination of direct dating, modelling, and examining associated dates from archaeological excavation is helping us rewrite the history of these symbolic traditions of Northern Europe and to understand more clearly the context of their development and use," Gordon Noble, Head of Archaeology at the University of Aberdeen, explained in a statement.
"Our dating reveals that the symbol system is likely to date from the third-fourth century CE and from an earlier period than many scholars had assumed."
The team carbon dated engraved bone artifacts found at Pictish excavation sites across the region. The earliest objects, they discovered, were from the third to fourth century CE, meaning they are around 200 years older than previously thought. This neatly aligns with the Roman occupation of Britain and the spread of the Roman script, which may have influenced the development of the Ogham alphabet in Ireland and runes in Scandinavia – and now, the Pictish symbols in northern Scotland.
"The general assumption has been that the Picts were late to the game in terms of monumental communication, but this new chronology shows that they were actually innovators in the same way as their contemporaries, perhaps more so in that they did not adapt an alphabetic script, but developed their own symbol-script," Martin Golderg from National Museums Scotland added.
But it might be best to avoid leaping to any conclusions just yet, warns Alex Woolf from the University of St Andrews, Scotland. First, the carvings were not directly dated so we cannot be absolutely certain they are as old as the study suggests. Second, Pictish symbols rarely appear in groups of more than four – "It beggars belief how this could be a script in any meaningful sense,” he told New Scientist.