How late were Pictish symbols employed?

 Lloyd Laing

Proceedings of the Society of Antiquities of Scotland, Vol. 130 (2000)

Introduction: Two problems have long beset the study of Pictish sculpture: what was the meaning and purpose of the symbols that figure in the repertoire of stone carving, and how long were they in use? Both questions are in a sense related, for the time-span of their use might cast some light on whether they had a political or social significance and also on the extent to which traditional cultural attributes of the Picts survived the Gaelic political dominance usually assumed to be associated with the formation of Alba in the ninth century (though on this see Broun 1998). Although there is still considerable debate about the precise origins and meaning of the symbols, in recent years there has been a growing consensus that the symbol-combinations are personal identity indicators, whether representing personal names in a literal sense, in the guise of ‘name statements’, or a combination of both.

The occurrence of Pictish symbols in stone carving does not necessarily mean that they were devised simultaneously with their appearance on stone — the symbols may have been in use long before their first appearance in an imperishable medium. That symbols were being carved on stone and bone in the fifth to sixth century ad is apparent from the finds from Pool, Orkney. These, and other instances of what Alcock has termed ur-symbols, imply that whatever the date of the first carving of the Class I stones, symbols were being developed by the sixth century, if not earlier. This would seem to cast doubt on the idea that all the symbols were devised at one time, perhaps, as has been suggested, under the rule of Bridei mac Maelchu (d. c. 585).

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