Z-Rods, Combs, and Double Discs: Pictish Stones

Pictish Stones DChe Picts lived in the east of Scotland, north of the Firth of Forth, from around the 4th to the 9th century. Archaeology continues to gradually uncover more information about how the Picts lived, but we do know for certain that they were master craftsmen, and in this day and age they’re probably best known as skilled stone masons. Approximately three hundred and fifty Pictish stones have been found throughout Scotland, mostly in the north east of the country in lowland areas, and they continue to intrigue researchers who are still speculating about their exact purpose. Some scholars suggest that the symbols carved into the stones represent the names of significant people or families, and these stones, like Ogham stones, may have been territorial or memorial markers. 

Around fifty unique Pictish symbols have been identified to date. Abstract geometric shapes can be found on the oldest of the stones and are perhaps the most identifiably Pictish of all the carvings. Some of these symbols have been named after everyday objects and are usually found in pairs, like the mirror and comb, anvil and hammer, and tongs and shears, whilst others have been given descriptive names, such as z-rods, double discs, and crescents. 

Pictish Stones 1

Carvings of both real and mythical creatures were a common occurrence. The shapes of the carved animal figures, with their simple lines and scroll markings, are reminiscent of those found in the Book of Kells, leading to speculation that the Picts were involved in its creation. The most commonly carved animal symbol depicts an odd creature resembling a seahorse. Known as the Pictish Beast, it has been suggested that this is the Each Uisge of Scottish myth. 

Pictish Stones 2

It’s thought that all of these carved symbols pre-date the Pictish stones and were originally designs for body decoration, used by the Picts to impart the symbol’s properties on the bearer. The symbols have also been found on silver objects, like the jewellery found in the Norrie’s Law hoard, and on small stone discs and bones. Examples of the early geometric Pictish symbols can be found carved on the walls of coastal caves in Fife and Moray. 

There have been countless meanings applied to the symbols and you’ll find a different explanation for each one depending on which book you read. For example, with regards to the z-rod:

“It is possible that it represents a sudden loud noise produced by the banging together of two discs: the clashing of cymbals. It is also possible that it represents a flash of lightning between two thunderclouds.”

from The Picts And Their Symbols, by W.A. Cummins

“Perhaps it represents the two worlds: the here-and-now and the otherworld; life and death.”

from A Wee Guide To The Picts, by Duncan Jones 

“Often associated with the Druidic duality of the sun which lights this world by day and the Otherworld by night. The sun’s two faces, benign in summer, malevolent in winter.”

from A Guide To The Pictish Stones, by Elizabeth Sutherland

If the Pictish symbols were ever completely deciphered they would give a unique view into early Scottish history, but Paul Bouissac, one of the world’s leading experts on signs and symbols, has said that to decode them, “….we will have to wait for the discovery of what would be the Pictish equivalent of the Rosetta Stone.” Unlikely though it seems, new stones are still being found, the most recent being the Dandaleith Stone, discovered in a field on Moray in 2013. 

  • http://timbrannan.blogspot.com/ Timothy Brannan

    That is really cool. I am going to have to come back here and read the rest of your blog!

    Congratulations on completing the A to Z blogging challenge!

    Don’t forget about the A to Z Reflections post coming up in May.

    Tim Brannan, The Other Side Blog

    2015 A to Z of Vampires


    • http://weewhitehoose.co.uk Fee

      Thanks Timothy, I’m glad you enjoyed it :)

  • Anabel Marsh

    Very informative and great use of Z! I’ve enjoyed your challenge – just sorry I didn’t come upon it sooner. I’ll be following with interest.

    • http://weewhitehoose.co.uk Fee

      Thanks so much, Anabel :)

  • Samantha Mozart

    Interesting and intriguing, Fee. I love learning about these ancient finds.
    Congrats on making it through from A to Z. Thank you for your fascinating stories.
    Samantha Mozart

    • http://weewhitehoose.co.uk Fee

      Thank you, Samantha! :)

  • Tarkabarka

    I love the one that is just called “Beast.” No clue what it is, but it looks cute! :D
    I really enjoyed your theme this year! It was one of my favorites. It was a great read, start to finish. I’ll go back over the weekend and read the ones I missed. And looking forward to your reflections on Monday! :)

    @TarkabarkaHolgy from
    Multicolored Diary – Epics from A to Z
    MopDog – 26 Ways to Die in Medieval Hungary

    • http://weewhitehoose.co.uk Fee

      Thanks so much for your constant support, both here in the comments and also with the shout outs on Twitter! Very glad to have found you and your blogs and I’ll definitely be keeping up with you in the future :)

  • HilaryMB

    Hi Fee – just spotted you posting elsewhere and saw the link … wish I’d found it earlier .. but I’ll be back to look .. and have added you to my Feedly … it’ll be really interesting .. the Vestiarium Scoticum is one I will look at .. loved finding out about that a couple of years ago .. cheers and congratulations on finishing .. Hilary

    • http://weewhitehoose.co.uk Fee

      Thanks so much, Hilary!

  • http://www.patgarciaschaack.com Pat Garcia

    Wow, that is a lot of history hidden behind those stones, and I believe they would tell the story or give an in-depth look into Scottish history and its people. One thing I am sure about in connection with Scotland and its people, that they were achievers. They helped settle the southern part of the United States.
    Fee, it has been more than a privilege to follow your blog during the challenge. I only wish I had found it sooner. I have signed up to receive an article whenever you write one and I look forward to learning more about the spirit of Scot because I believe I have some Scottish genes within me.
    Great job, Lady. We made it. We’ve survived the Challenge.

    • http://weewhitehoose.co.uk Fee

      Thank you, Pat! Your unwavering support has been an absolute joy. Much love xx

      • http://www.patgarciaschaack.com Pat Garcia

        Good Morning Fee,
        My days are slowly beginning to find the rhythm that I need to complete my manuscript. The A to Z was quite a challenge for me. Your blog postings were also a big hit for me because I believe I found the root of my storytelling experienced. Sir Walter Scott was one of my favourite writing heroes. I loved his work and still do. I am not a person who searches for their ancestry. That’s not my thing, but I recognised at an early age that there was some things about me that were different. I yearned for the mountains; I would rather read than eat, and I loved writing even before I could write. I would write in my own script and then tell the story to anyone I could find that would listen.
        So discovering your blog, after having visited Scotland and feeling at home there, was a highlight for me this year in the challenge.
        I am going to work through all of your posts because I know they will enrich my life.
        Have a great week.

  • http://titli15081977.blogspot.in/ Shubhangi

    Wow!! That was interesting!! There is a whole unknown world there waiting to be read!!

    Have enjoyed coming here and reading the wonderful posts you kept putting up!! Glad to connect to you. :)

    The little princess

    • http://weewhitehoose.co.uk Fee

      Thanks so much Shubhangi :)

  • Sara C. Snider

    Very cool! Notched rectangle and Z-rod looks like a robot hehe. I wonder if alien conspiracy theorists have had fun with that one.

    Congratulations on completing the challenge! I’ve very much enjoyed your posts, and will have to go back and read the ones I missed. It was great meeting you Fee, and I look forward to your posts in the future. :)

    • http://weewhitehoose.co.uk Fee

      Haha, it really does, I didn’t notice! :D

      Thanks so much for your support during the A-Z!

  • Heidi Dahlsveen

    How wonderful to read more about Scotland through your blow!

    • http://weewhitehoose.co.uk Fee

      Thanks Heidi! :)

  • Sheila Milne

    This is all so fascinating! Now I need to know more.

    • http://weewhitehoose.co.uk Fee

      Thanks Sheila, I’m glad you enjoyed it :)

  • JazzFeathers

    I find the Pitcs fascinating. Like other mysterious cultures (like Etruschi in my homeland) what we don’t know about them makes what we do know even more mysterious and fascinating.

    Congratulation on finishing the challange. I cam late to yoru blog, but I find it so very intersting. I’m afraid you won’t get rid of me very easily ;-)

    • http://weewhitehoose.co.uk Fee

      I find the Etruscans just as fascinating as the Picts :)

      Thanks for all your support during the A-Z! I’m still thinking on what direction I’ll be going in with future posts but hopefully I’ll be back posting regularly very soon.

  • http://www.thechinesequest.com/ Mee Magnum

    Fascinating post! I’m still making the rounds of all the blogs that participated in the Challenge… Now I have to go and read more of your posts!!

    –Mee (The Chinese Quest)

    • http://weewhitehoose.co.uk Fee

      Thanks for dropping by, Mee! I’m glad you enjoyed it :)

  • http://www.oddparticle.com/ Kern Windwraith

    So interesting. Just think of all the stories we could make up about that mysterious Z-rods. It’s kind of happy-making to know that we haven’t yet solved all the historical puzzles, isn’t it?

    I’m glad to have found your blog–love your writing and your A to Z theme.

  • Sinead

    Could the eagle represent Saint John as it’s similar to the eagle in the Echternach gospels?