|Double disc and z-rod;
serpent and z-rod; and
mirror on the Picardy
|A notched rectangle and
Z-rod and a triple-disc on
the stone at Aberlemno
|The busy reverse of stone
number 4 at Meigle includes
a Pictish beast with a crescent
and V-rod on the left.
|The Pictish beast depicted
on one of the Christian
grave-markers at Meigle.
|Hammer and anvil
alongside tongs at the foot
of the Dunfallandy stone,
|The reverse of the cross-slab at
Elgin Cathedral features double-disc
and Z-rod, and crescent and V-rod,
above a hunting scene.
|The symbols occur on stones the length and breadth of Pictland, from the Forth to Shetland. This implies that they were understood by all Picts, and in some way were a common visual language. They are usually combined in pairs – abstract with abstract or abstract with animal. Abstract symbols are more common; and as a rule animal symbols usually only appear in the company of abstract ones.
Some stones appear to be designed as grave-markers, although archaeological evidence for their direct association with burials is usually lacking. Partly based on this, it is now believed that certain pairings of symbols identify the person or family they commemorate. However, any names represented in this way would have belonged to the privileged few, the uppermost echelons of Pictish society.
Hilton of Cadboll Pictish stone.
It has been suggested that individual animal symbols refer to specific tribes or regional groups. But some of them occur throughout Pictish lands, and are not confined to regions. The stronghold site at Burghead yielded a number of panels, each carved with a single bull. This figure may represent the fort itself, the people of that region or the local ruler. But bull symbols do occasionally appear outwith this area.
A 'tuning-fork' symbol and part of a crescent and V-rod on the Pictish stone attached to the Abernethy round tower, near Perth.
|The location of carved stones on the boundary between arable land and upland leads some experts to conclude that they were probably erected to mark ownership of land.
Another approach is to see the symbols linguistically, as actual elements of names.