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Unlocking the mysteries of the Picts

31 March 2010

Archaeologists and historians have long been baffled by the mysterious symbols left behind by the Picts, an ancient Scottish race believed to have left no written records of themselves.  While the Picts are mentioned by their contemporary Romans, Anglo-Saxons and Irish, all they left to posterity were mysterious elaborate figures carved into stones.  Nobody has yet been able to decipher these symbols, with some arguing that they are nothing more than decorative or heraldic images.

However, now a team based in the UK have used an advanced mathematical technique to show that the Pictish symbols are almost certainly writing, leading linguists and archaeologists one step closer to unlocking the mysteries of the Picts.  The research, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society: A, uses Shannon entropy – a measure of randomness or uncertainty – to analyse the ancient symbols.
The symbols used in written language exhibit certain distinctive patterns of Shannon entropy which distinguish them from decorative or heraldic usage.  While this type of approach has been used to analyse writing before, previous investigators have struggled to analyse symbols where examples are relatively few and far between.  Given that there are only around 250 Pictish symbol stones in existence, nobody has been able to use this method to decipher the mysterious symbols until now.  In this case the investigators used a novel technique to estimate the completeness of the existing set of characters, which allowed them to spot the distinctive patterns characteristic of written language in the symbol stones.

This new method opens up the possibility that other ancient inscriptions could be similarly analysed, paving the way to vastly improved interpretation of many ancient languages that were previously thought undecipherable.  Furthermore, the authors point out that similar techniques could be used to analyse animal noises, leading to the possibility of an enhanced understanding of animal communication.