Rare Pictish symbol stone found at exceptionally important Scottish archaeological site

A stone marked with 1,400-year-old Pictish symbols has been discovered, and its location could shed light on how Scotland was shaped by its prehistory.

In the early Middle Ages, the people of present-day Scotland carved many large symbolic stones in shapes whose meaning has not been deciphered in modern times. With only a few hundred of these stones unearthed, each new one is a treasured find – but when archaeologists at the University of Aberdeen unearthed one, the context made it doubly so.

“We suddenly saw a symbol. There was a lot of screaming,” said Dr James O’Driscoll, who discovered the stone, in a declaration.

“Then we found more symbols and there was more screaming and a bit of crying! It’s a feeling I’ll probably never have again at an archaeological site. It’s a find of this magnitude. “

Most symbolic stones have been found unrelated to other historical features, for example by farmers plowing fields, which does little to help understand the mystery of their design. However, the last hoard has been located as part of an effort to understand the site around some of the most important surviving symbolic stones, located at Alberlemno.

The Alberlemno stones include examples of the earliest style, thought to date back to the 5th or 6th century, as well as later examples showing the influence of Christianity.

A stone called Aberlemno II is particularly significant, as it includes figures believed to represent the Battle of Nechtansmere in 685, when the invading Anglo-Saxon armies were repulsed, maintaining the independence of the North for centuries to come. Historians debate whether Aberlemno was the site of the battle.

Archaeologists were using imaging equipment to look for anomalies around the stones and found a signal strong enough to cause them to dig. They thought they had reached a settlement, but were amazed to find the symbolic stone.

Where other stones seem to belong to a specific era, this one has multiple layers on top of each other, reflecting the changing styles over time. Whether that makes it some sort of potential Rosetta Stone, with new symbolic language shedding light on lesser-understood earlier symbols, remains to be seen.

Although the initial symbols on this stone apparently predate Nechtansmere, it appears to have been considered significant long after.

“The stone was found embedded in the paving of a huge building from the 11th or 12th century. The paving included Pictish stones and examples of Bronze Age rock art. Excitingly, the 11th and 12th century building appears to have been constructed directly above layers of settlement dating back to the Pictish period,” Professor Gordon Noble said in a declaration.

It seems that the emerging nation of Scotland regarded Pictish artefacts as important and a matter of pride, as they incorporated carved stones from centuries earlier into the base of their most impressive buildings.

“The discovery of this new Pictish symbol stone and the evidence that this site was occupied for such a long time will provide new insights into this important period in Scottish history and help us better understand how and why this part of Angus became a key Pictish landscape and lately an integral part of the kingdoms of Alba and Scotland”, Noble noted.

Amanda J. Marsh