Pictish symbols as memorial signs

John Stuart and Charles Thomas are the authors whose theories will be examined in this part. They both tried to prove that the Pictish symbol stones have served as memorial stones for the deceased or that they were erected as a remembrance of important historical events.

John Stuart

Stuart’s contribution to Pictish research was of great encyclopaedic value. Although the Picts did not leave us any written sources, they did leave us their monuments. It learns us that the Picts did possess an information system which used symbols. It also tells us something about Pictish society. Because the repetitive character of the use of symbols allows us to conclude that the Picts had indeed a profound connection network as the written testimonies of their contemporaries already made us presume. Stuart has not composed a real theory about the origin, function and meaning of the Pictish symbol stones, he has given a mere set of ideas. Although his thoughts on the stones sometimes contradict each other, they are worth investigating because they have been the starting point for all students after him.[1]

Stuart states correctly that the erection of pillars, to commemorate events of various kinds, seems to have been common in all parts of the world, and from the earliest times. In his first volume he gives an example: Genesis 35:20: ‘and Jacob set up a pillar over her tomb. It is the pillar of Rachel’s tomb, which is there to this day.’[2] According to Stuart we must view the Pictish symbol stones within this ancient tradition. A Pictish symbol monument can commemorate the dead or serve as a remembrance of certain important events, for example, a coronation or a battle.[3]

In his first volume Stuart concludes that none of the symbols, except for the Mirror and Comb, have been found in other areas or countries. Therefore, it is impossible to give a conjecture as to the origin of the symbols.[4] Stuart attempts to detect the meaning of the Pictish symbols by viewing them as part of the above-stated memorial signs. It is possible to divide the subjects on the sculptures of Scotland in two groups: 1) the symbols, and 2) the pictorial representations. The first group can be subdivided into objects of common use, such as the Comb, the Mirror and the Shears, and unfamiliar objects, like the Serpent, the Elephant, the Crescent and the Spectacle ornament.[5]

To explain the objects of common use, Stuart quotes from Christian Iconography by Didron: ‘it is customary among all nations to represent on the tomb of a deceased person the attributes of the trade he had followed during his life […] Formerly when an individual died he was interred together with the objects that he had loved during his life – his horse, his clothes, his valuable things, even his wife’. The objects of common use such as the Comb, the Book, the Chalice and the Hammer must be seen as part of this custom.[6]

The unfamiliar objects present a more difficult question, but according to Stuart these symbols must also be viewed as part of this custom. The unfamiliar objects on Pictish symbol stones could be derived from the Pictish tradition of painting the body. It is believed that the Picts painted their body with designs of animals and other objects. These paintings, or tattoos, could have had special meaning to a deceased and their symbols would therefore be placed on their tomb.[7] Following this possibility is the supposition that the Picts, like many other Early Medieval peoples, believed in monsters and wonders of various sorts. A heroic act by an original founder of a clan or tribe against such a monstrosity could result in a connection with this monster for the descendants. When, for example, the founder had defeated an Elephant, the clan or tribe would use this symbol as some sort of distinguishing insignia. Displaying the Elephant on one’s tomb could possibly indicate the clan or tribe of the deceased. The unfamiliar symbols, such as the Double Disc or the Crescent, could be a drawing of the fibulae that the deceased Pict wore. A fibula is a brooch, often made from precious metal such as silver, that was pinned on a cloak with a needle. A fibula indicated the status of the bearer. If a fibula was large and beautifully decorated, the status of the bearer was higher than the status of someone who wore a simple fibula. Stuart surmised that the unknown symbols could be seen as fibulae, certainly when they are displayed with a Sceptre, a V-rod or a Z-rod, which in this case could serve as a needle.[8] To confirm his explanation Stuart points at the Norrie’s Law Hoard silver plaques which, according to him, had served as Pictish fibulae.[9]

afb 1 - pictish remains - metalwork

Silver Plaques from the Norrie’s Law Hoard: Double Disc and Z-rod and Animal’s Head (see Pictish Metalwork: only the left silver Plaque is from Pictish origin, the right one is a fake that was made in the Victorian Era). (source: see images)

Stuart believes that the unfamiliar symbols with the pictorial representations, such as the Animals symbols, were used for pictorial effect, to cover the surface and to decorate the monument. They were only added for ornamental purposes and have no special meaning. He compares the Pictish use of Animal symbols with the use of animals in The Book of Kells, where animals are displayed without any clear reference to the Gospel text.[10] Stuart’s interpretation of these Insular animals is no longer valid, for scholars now believe that there is indeed a connection between the Gospel texts and the painted animals in Insular illuminated manuscripts.


Charles Thomas

Charles Thomas wrote two papers about the origin, function and meaning of the Pictish symbol stones. His first paper concerning this subject is “The animal art of the Scottish Iron Age and its origins”, published in 1961, and the second paper is called “The interpretation of the Pictish symbols”, published in 1963. In his first extensive and complex paper he claims that Pictish symbols have their origins in the unsophisticated La Tène ‘animal style’. He states that there are similarities between Celtic pottery that has been found in England, dating to the 3rd until the 1stcentury B.C., and the Pictish symbols.[11] His second papers deals with the meaning and function of the Pictish symbol stones. He claims that: ‘the component designs of Pictish art, singly and in combination, were employed by the Picts to convey admittedly simple messages, mostly commemorative of the dead; and that during the early period of the historical Picts, the designs were not merely artistic motifs but primitive pictograms.’[12]  Thomas claims that the Picts had ongoing contacts with the Romans from around the 2nd century. He based his theory on Ptolemy, who has drawn up a map of the British Isles which included Scotland, and in which he indicated the fourteen different tribes that lived in this area. Thomas believes that because of these continuous contacts with the Romans it could be possible that the Picts acquired knowledge about Roman and British Romano-Celtic art, and from this developed a type of memorial stone.[13]

Thomas claims that the almost fifty Pictish symbols that are known can be divided into three groups. The first group contains symbols with naturalistic animal representations. He claims that, with the exception of two symbols, the S-dragon and the Elephant, it is possible to identify every single animal. The second group contains symbols with geometrical forms, and the third group contains symbols made up of objects.[14]

The rendition of multiple symbols or one symbol on a monument should be called a statement. Thomas has made an ingenious scheme of formula’s to define every statement.[15] A statement with two symbols that are vertically placed is called A / B. The symbol that is placed on top is symbol A and the symbol that is placed below is symbol B. When there is a Mirror and Comb placed next to the lower symbol (B) the formula should be A / B = C (Mirror) = D (Comb). This analysis does not say anything about the separate meanings of the symbols, but it does give insight in the different combinations that occur on the Pictish symbol stones. Thomas claims that there are 158 identified statements in all.[16]

These so-called statements can be divided in different groups. The first group of statements contains monuments with only one symbol of a naturalistic animal representation. With the exception of the Lynchurn stone, all monuments that display only one symbol have an animal design incised.[17] This could mean that this group has a different function than stones with other statements. It is possible that an animal representation stands for the tribe of the deceased or could serve as an early version of the Scottish clan-badge. Within this explanation, a Pictish monument could possibly serve as a territory marker for a tribe or clan. Interestingly, Thomas has also included the Burghead Bulls within this group which are believed to have been tossed into the water by the Picts themselves.[18] Monuments with statements that consist of multiple symbols should be considered as tombstones and are placed in a different group. The symbols displayed on the tombstone say something about the deceased and the person who commissioned the tombstone. Animal representations within these statements should not be viewed as territory markers but as symbol for the tribe or clan of the deceased. Thomas claims that most of the Pictish symbol stones have been found on burial sites.[19]

Thomas gives an extensive overview of the possible meaning of every design that he recognizes as a Pictish symbol. By seeing the symbols as simplified designs of things that in reality are more complicated, he has explained a lot of difficult symbols. For example, the Notched Rectangle is a simplified rendition of a chariot with two warriors (as seen from the front) and a Triple Disc with Bar could be a simplified rendition of a kettle hanging above a fire (as seen from above). Thomas’ interpretations of the Pictish symbols are purely based on visual observation. In this system a geometric symbol can have a similar meaning as a symbol of a familiar object, such as a Hammer or an Anvil. Thomas claims that the designs were transmitted in time through the painted bodies of the Picts.[20]

When a Mirror and Comb appear in a statement this could be a reference to a woman. Thomas offers the hypothesis that the upper symbol could stand for the deceased and the lower one could stand for the person who commissioned the stone. When a Mirror and Comb are added to the lower symbol, this would mean that the patron was a woman. Thomas claims that the Mirror and Comb were feminine symbols in Pictish culture. He states that the Mirror and Comb on the Hilton of Cadboll stone in Ross are directly associated with the female equestrian on this monument. The Mirror and Comb occur again on a grave-slab on Iona which was erected in 1543 in honour of a female, Prioress Anna. This tombstone was erected a few hundred years after the Picts. According to Thomas it shows that the tradition of displaying a Mirror and Comb on a female grave-slab is an early ‘Pictish’ custom that was still practiced in the sixteenth century.[21]

Another hypothesis expounded by Thomas concerns symbols that appear with or without V-rods or Z-rods. Thomas claims that the V-rod or Z-rod stands for a broken arrow or spear and so for a deceased person. When  a monument has a symbol without a V-rod or Z-rod, for example only a Crescent, this symbol would stand automatically for the person who commissioned this monument.[22]

Thomas surmises that the extent to which a symbol is decorated shows the age of the symbol. Thomas claims that the class 1 monuments date from the late 5th to the late 7th century. This means that symbols with little decoration were made around the 6th century and symbols that contain a wealth of decoration are made in a later phase, roughly the 7th century.  The transition period from class 1 monuments to class 2 monuments took place in the late 7th until the early 8th century. Thomas claims that the erecting of Pictish symbol stones continued until the tenth century.[23]

Read more

  • Stuart, The Sculptured Stones of Scotland, 2 vols., Aberdeen, 1856-1857. These volumes can be consulted online: https://archive.org/details/sculpturedstones01stua/page/n5
  • Thomas‘Animal Art in the Scottish Iron Age’, in: Archaeological Journal, 118 (1961), 14-64.
  • ThomasThe interpretation of the Pictish Symbols’, in: Archaeological Journal, 120 (1963), 31-64.
  • For more information about the Norrie’s Law Hoard go to the website of the National Museum of Scotland or visit! It’s such a nice museum and it is free! https://www.nms.ac.uk/explore-our-collections/stories/scottish-history-and-archaeology/norries-law-hoard/

 [1] Cf. Pictish symbols as memorial signs [2] Gen. 35:20 English Standard Version. [3] Stuart 1856, I, I. [4] Stuart 1856, I, XII. [5] Stuart 1867, II, I. [6] Stuart 1867, II, I-II. [7] Stuart 1867, II, IV-V. [8] Stuart 1867, VIII-XI. [9] Cf. Pictish remains: metalwork [10] Stuart 1867, XIV. [11] Thomas 1961, 14,56. [12]Thomas 1963, 31. [13] Thomas 1961, 57. [14] Thomas 1963, 31-32. [15] Thomas 1963, 35. [16]Thomas 1963, 36. [17] Image 11. [18] Thomas 1963, 36, 40-41. [19] Thomas 1963, 41-43. [20]Thomas 1963, 62-63. [21] Thomas 1963, 43. [22] Thomas 1963, 49-50. [23] Thomas 1963, 33.