Deciphering The Newton Stone’s Mysterious “Unknown Script”
Every once in a while, objects of interest come across my desk that hold certain features that lift them just beyond our understanding. The enigmatic Newton Stone is one such artifact, not only because this ancient monolith is inscribed with a carved message written in a mysterious and currently unsolved language, but also because the writing can be interpreted using at least five ancient alphabets.
Discovering the Newton Stone
Discovered in 1804 when George Hamilton-Gordon, the Earl of Aberdeen, was laying a road near Pitmachie Farm in Aberdeenshire, the Scottish Antiquarian Alexander Gordon later moved this enigmatic megalith to the garden of Newton House, in the Parish of Culsamond about a mile north of Pitmachie Farm. According to the Aberdeenshire Council of Newton House, The Newton Stone is described as:
“of blue gneiss and is around 2.03 meters high. It has 6 horizontal lines of characters inscribed at the top which are thought to be a debased Roman script, the meaning of which is unknown. To the left of this, down the side of the stone, runs an Ogham inscription. It contains a personal name (Ethernan) and additional material that is either incomplete or not wholly legible. An incised 'kidney-bean' shape was observed on the lower side of this stone, identified as a possible Pictish mirror symbol.”
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The Newton Stone and accompanying stone with a Pictish symbol. ( John Stuart, Sculptured Stones of Scotland (1856). Plates I, VIII )
The “Unknown Script”
Ogham is an Early Medieval alphabet used to write the early Irish language between the 1st and 9th centuries. The short row of script on the Newton Stone contains 6 lines of 48 characters and symbols, including a swastika, and is situated across the top third of the stone. The language used to write this message has never been accurately identified and it has become known in academic circles as the “unknown script".
Most specialists agree that the long Ogham inscription is ancient. For example, Scottish historian William Forbes Skene dated the unknown inscription to the 9th century. But several scholars also claim that the short row was added to the stone in the late 18th or early 19th century, suggesting the mysterious "unknown script" is a modern hoax or a badly executed forgery.
Portrait (darkened) of Scottish historian William Forbes Skene. ( Public Domain ) He dated the unknown inscription to the 9th century.
Deciphering the Stone
The Newton Stone’s mysterious engravings were first published by John Pinkerton in his 1814 book ‘Inquiry into the History of Scotland’, but he personally made no attempt to decipher the "unknown script". That first happened in 1822 when John Stuart, Professor of Greek at Marischal College, detailed a translation attempt made by Charles Vallancey, who saw the characters as Latin, which he published in a paper addressed to the Edinburgh Society of Antiquaries entitled ‘Sculpture Pillars in the Northern Part of Scotland.’
In 1856, Stuart published ‘Sculptured Stones of Scotland’, detailing the work of Dr. William Hodge Mill (1792–1853), an English churchman and orientalist, the first principal of Bishop’s College, Calcutta, and later Regius Professor of Hebrew at the University of Cambridge. Dr. Mill proposed “the unknown script was Phoenician” and being so highly-respected in ancient language circles, his opinion was taken seriously and also greatly debated, nowhere more so than at a meeting of the British Association at Cambridge in 1862. Although Dr. Mill had died in 1853, his paper titled ‘On the Decipherment of the Phoenician Inscription on the Newton Stone discovered in Aberdeenshire’ was read out during this debate, and his translation of the “unknown script” was:
“To Eshmun, God of Health, by this monumental stone, may the wandering Exile of me, thy servant, go up in never-ceasing memorial, even the record of Han Thanet Zenaniah, Magistrate, who is saturated with sorrow.”
Diagram of Main Inscription—Newton Stone. ( The Right Hon. Earl of Southesk )
Several academics supported Mill’s Phoenician theory, for example, both Dr. Nathan Davis, the explorer of Carthage, and Professor Aufrecht also believed the script to be Phoenician. But in the skeptic camp, Mr. Thomas Wright proposed a simpler ‘debased Latin’ translation, reading: hie iacet Constantinus, "Here lies Constantinus, the son of.” Mr. Vaux of the British Museum agreed it was ‘mediaeval Latin’ and Wright’s translation was also supported by the palaeographer Constantine Simonides, but he substituted the Latin for Greek.
Three years after this debacle, in 1865, the antiquarian Alexander Thomson read a paper to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland addressing the five most popular decipherment theories:
• Phoenician (Nathan Davis, Theodor Aufrecht, William Mill)
• Gaelic (an unnamed correspondent of Thomson's)
• Latin (Thomas Wright, William Vaux)
• Greek (Constantine Simonides)
• Gnostic symbolism (John O. Westwood)
Close-up of the undeciphered writing on the Newton Stone. (golux/ The Megalithic Portal )
Fringe Theories Abound!
While this particular group of specialists argued over the nature of the Newton Stone’s inscription and which of the five proposed languages was used to make the cryptic message, another faction of more eccentric researchers kept new ideas flowing in. For example, Mr. George Moore proposed a ‘Hebrew-Bactrian’ translation, while others likened it to Sinaitic, a form of old Canaanite.
Lieutenant Colonel Laurence Austine Waddell was a British explorer, Professor of Tibetan, Professor of Chemistry and Pathology, and an amateur archaeologist who had studied Sumerian and Sanskrit. In 1924, Waddell published his ‘Out of India’ ideas offering another radical decipherment - ‘Hitto-Phoenician.’ Waddell’s books on the history of civilization were extremely popular with the public because they were so controversial, and today he is regarded by some as the real-life precursor of the fictitious archaeological explorer Indiana Jones, but his work earned him little academic respect as a serious Assyriologist.
Laurence Austine Waddell. ( Public Domain )
Although Waddell’s ‘Hitto-Phoenician’ interpretation was built on thin ice, it was precisely what Dr. Mill needed to hear because it supported his idea that the script was written in a form of ‘Phoenician’. In agreement with Waddell, Dr. Mill announced that “the inscription was in the Phoenician character,” which inspired Colonel Sykes to look at the script, and he began seeing affinities with the “ancient alphabet of the Buddhists”.
A faction of academics in the 19th century were so convinced of the Buddhist origins of the Newton Stone’s script that they debated ‘which’ of the many and diverse Brahmi script derivatives had been used to make it, however, one critic argued:
“I find a difficulty in reconciling to my mind the probability of Buddhist priests coming from the far east to the far west, to the cold and then almost uninhabited wastes of the north of Scotland, and inscribing Hebrew words in the Ogham character of the Gaedhil of Erinn.”
Notes on the Ogham Inscription on Newton Stone. ( William Forbes Skene )
In 1935, R. A. Stewart Macalister proposed that the "unknown script” was a modern forgery and said: "There has never been a ‘Newton Stone’ controversy; the literature of the subject, like that of the ‘Number of the Beast’, resembles a series of disconnected runaway knocks, inflicted by street urchins on the door of a tempting corner house.” In 1956, however, the archaeologist C. A. Gordon disputed Macalister’s skepticism by claiming:
"After deliberate examination [...] I now feel sure that the inscription is genuine ancient work [...] On the whole the evidence, both technical and petrological, seems to be so clearly in favor of the authenticity of the inscription that it can be confidently handed back to the consideration of scholars.”
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Diagram of Ogham Inscription—Newton Stone . (The Right Hon. Earl of Southesk )
The argument simmered down in the mid-20th century until 1984, when Anthony Jackson, a Senior Lecturer in Social Anthropology at Edinburgh University, addressed the “unknown script” problem from a new angle. Jackson, thinking right outside the box, called for the linguistic approaches to be abandoned for a numerical interpretation:
"...there is some advantage in abandoning a strictly linguistic approach to the Newton stone in favour of a numerical solution. Naturally this method cannot produce a translation of the unknown script any more than it can with the Oghams or symbol stones, but it does more than hint that the Picts were keenly aware of the property of numbers, especially if they had mystical significance.”
Ogham Stone and Pictish Symbol Stone, Aberdeenshire, Scotland. (Klingon/ The Megalithic Portal )
Today, a wide range of interpretations attempt to translate the Newton Stone’s mysterious message including: debased Latin, medieval Latin, Greek, Gaelic, Gnostic symbolism, Hebrew-Bactrian, Hitto-Phoenician, Sinaitic, and Old Irish, but not one of these has been proven conclusive. Maybe you should give the Newton Stone an hour this weekend, as it wouldn’t be the first time a casual observer turned a key in an age old problem.
Illustration of the inscriptions on the Newton Stone from John Stuart's ‘Sculptured Stones of Scotland’ (1856). ( Public Domain )
Top Image: Close-up of the undeciphered writing on the Newton Stone. (Deriv.) Source: golux/ The Megalithic Portal
By Ashley Cowie
Boutet, M.G. (2015) ‘The Newton Pictish Stone of Aberdeenshire.’ Available at: https://www.academia.edu/17483008/The_Newton_Pictish_Stone_of_Aberdeenshire
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Gordon, C. A. 1956. Carving Technique on the Symbol Stones of North-East Scotland . Proc. Soc. Antiq. Scot. lxxxviii: 40-46.
Jackson, A. 1984. The Symbol Stones of Scotland . Orkney Press. p. 199.
Petrie, G., Graves, C. 1847. On the Inscriptions Found on the Ancient Pillar Stone at Newton, near Pitmachie, in Aberdeenshire . In: Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy
Turner, R. L. 1925. The Phoenician Origin of Britons, Scots, and Anglo-Saxons [Review]. Bulletin of the School of Oriental Studies, University of London. 3(4): 808-810.