The notional Pictish period in Scotland spans a period from circa 300 AD to circa 800 AD. The first recorded account of tribes which Roman Invaders called the Picti is attributed to the Roman historian Eumenius writing in 297 AD. The name Picti (painted people) may have referred to "war paint" or possibly to tribal tattoos. The Venerable Bede tells us in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People that the Picts came from Scythia, however it more likely that they derive from the late Iron Age native people of Scotland.
Traditionally the Picts have been somewhat of an enigma to historians. Although the Picts reside in the early historic period they left us no written histories save for secondary sources such as King lists recorded in the annals of largely Irish monasteries. They disappear from written histories in the 9th century probably by being incorporated into the newly formed Kingdom of Alba.
It is thought that the Picts spoke a form of Brythonic that belongs to the P-Celtic group of languages. In contrast the tribes of the Scoti (Scots) spoke a language similar to Old Irish that belongs to the Q-Celtic language group. Remnants of Pictish survive in a few place names, for example the Pit prefix from the Pictish Pett meaning a place or share of land as in Pittenweem.
Within archaeology the Picts are known for their vitrified forts, cellular house forms and long cist burials in curbed enclosures, however the Picts are largely known for their graphic and figuratively sculpted symbol stones.
The earliest examples date to the pre-Christian period and take the form of undressed boulders incised with symbols of unknown significance or meaning and are known as class I stones. It has been observed that symbols often occur in pairs and may signify the formation of tribal alliances or marriages. A frequently recurring paring, the mirror case and comb may signify the gender of an individual.
Later in the period, quarried and dressed rectangular stelae are more common with incised carving being supplanted by carving in relief. Both sides are carved with a cross on one side and often having a secular image on the reverse. Such class II stone may have been erected to commemorate a military victory (Aberlemno II stone) or a combination of a hunting scene topped by Pictish symbols for example (Hilton of Cadbol stone) which may commemorate the consecration of a new Bishop. Such stones bear comparison with Byzantine Consular Triptychs.
Some academics recognise class III stones that take the form of tall cruciform stele; however this style is not exclusively Pictish.