Laser scanning to reveal secrets of Orkney and Shetland carved stones

Swedish scientists have carried out a pioneering new laser scanning technique on carved stones from Orkney and Shetland in a bid to unveil their secrets and answer “longstanding questions” about interactions between the Picts, the Gaels and the Vikings

The technique, developed to analyse runestones in Sweden, has never before been used in Scotland.

The pilot project, led by National Museums Scotland and the University of the Highlands and Islands, is focussing on two sites – Cunningsburgh in Shetland and Brough of Birsay, Orkney.

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Both were important early medieval power centres, and seem to have expressed this through monumental inscriptions in stone. They are the only two sites in Europe with evidence for the use of runes, ogham and Pictish symbols.

Swedish scientists have carried out a pioneering new laser scanning technique on carved stones from Orkney and Shetland in a bid to unveil their secrets.

Dr Adrián Maldonado, of National Museums Scotland, said today:“Nothing like this has been attempted in Scotland.

“Runes are generally studied by those interested in the Viking Age, but we know that ogham was used before and during the period of Scandinavian settlements in Scotland. In fact, we have roughly equal numbers of early medieval inscriptions in both alphabets.

“The Pictish symbols, a related form of inscribed communication, have rarely been studied alongside these other forms of writing. The answers might help us answer longstanding questions of interactions between Picts, Gaels and Norse.”

He added: "Like the recent discovery of Old English names written on objects from the "Viking" Galloway Hoard, the evidence of inscriptions shows multiple languages and alphabets were in use across early medieval Scotland. This fits into broader research showing the problematic nature of the ethnic labels commonly used, such as Anglo-Saxon, Pictish and Viking, to describe individuals in this period."

Expert Dr Alexandra Sanmark of the University of the Highlands and Islands, added: “The project seeks to trace the establishment of writing as a technology of power in early medieval Britain.

Archaeological evidence for literacy includes the Latin alphabet, runes, ogham and Pictish symbols. Scotland is unique for having evidence of all these forms of writing inscribed in stone monuments. This project will focus on sites where multiple writing systems are used.”

New techniques developed by Swedish scientists use 3D laser scanning to discern specific methods of runic carving, and even different sculptors according to minute details of carving technique.

This technique has never been applied to Pictish or ogham inscriptions, and it is hoped that it will contribute valuable new information for dating, particularly for damaged inscriptions, and show whether inscriptions across writing systems and languages correspond to different sculptors.

It will feed new data into research supervised by both project directors with outputs expected by 2020, including the ongoing Glenmorangie Research Project, ‘Creating Scotland: Making a Medieval Kingdom AD 800-1200’.

Three-dimensional models of the inscribed stones will be made available online and the information will be added to the publicly available National Museums Scotland catalogue.