A long-awaited and very exciting resource: the new online database ‘Ogham in 3D’ from Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies is coming shortly. Its already online with a small selection (50+) of individual stones. The site is going to offer 3D scans of Irish Ogham stones, alongside their associated historical, etymological and archaeological data; ‘bringing all of the available information together in a single searchable archive’.
In other words, a GOLDMINE for researchers. Really. You have no idea how disparate a lot of this information has previously been.
Ogham stones are crucial to understanding the development of Early Irish Christianity. Not only are the inscriptions the earliest recorded efforts at replicating the aural sounds of primitive Irish; but as formulaic monumental inscriptions involving named ancestral figures, they are quite possibly the earliest archaeological evidence for Insular Irish Christianity itself.
‘Leaving just a memory’
Their very physicality, alongside the form of their inscriptions, follow a memorial style common throughout Late Romano-Britain. Ogham itself is based on the Latin alphabet. A number of Ogham stones are also inscribed with early crosses, with some rare, intriguing examples qualifying those named as ‘pilgrim’ and ‘priest’. Over the centuries, many Ogham stones have been relocated to nearby ecclesiastical sites and graveyards. Several others (see below) have been found reused within the walls of later medieval churches. From an early stage then, it seems that many Ogham stones enjoyed a compatibility and association with Irish Christian identity and expression; something that continued well into subsequent centuries. At the very least, they reflect an early insular engagement and adaptation of external (Latin based) cultural practices of commemoration.
‘All in all, it’s just another brick in the wall’
The following is just one example of the re-use of Ogham stones within later ecclesiastical contexts, in addition to illustrating the sheer chance involved in their occasional recognition. In 2009, I was privileged to witness the rediscovery of a Ogham fragment in the walls of a medieval Church. I was helping out with a geophysical survey of Baslick church & cemetery, Co. Roscommon, conducted by The Discovery Programme. Every morning we would assemble within the Church ruins to plan the days activities. A wall of the church ruined had recently been cleared of heavy ivy and re-pointed with modern cement in order to stabilize the structure.
A few mornings passed by and we paid little attention to the above stone, amidst many others. Why would we, it’s just another stone in a wall, right?
One particularly sunny morning, with the early light coming from just the right direction to cast shadows over the stones, we gathered in front of the wall. Brian Shanahan, the Assistant Project Director, stood right in front of it, turned around to start the days planning… and then turned back: “Is that Ogham?”
‘Snapshot in the family album’
It’s hardly that surprising, really. Baslick is long attested as an important early ecclesiastical site (RO021-083001-) associated with Roman relics in early Irish History; the earliest contemporary witness being its inclusion within Tírechán’s seventh century Collectanea. Its abbots are occasionally mentioned in eight and ninth century annals alongside a notice of Norse raiding. Indeed the very name itself, Baslick, is derived from the vernacular Baislec; itself derived from its seventh century Latin name Bassilica Sanctorum (Basilica of the Saints). Talk about a flashing medieval neon sign saying ‘Look Here’.
The Baslick Ogham fragment (RO021-083005-) (dims 0.46m x 0.11m) has been read by Fionnbar Moore as AC(or T)IMA(TCQ); which is thought to represent ATI MAQI. The ‘Maqi’ element is one of the most common terms found on Irish Ogham stones, meaning ‘son of’; and is the primitive Irish precursor of modern-day ‘Mac’ in Irish surnames. Unfortunately, as this usually occurs between the personal name and tribal/dynasty/grandfather name, we are therefore missing the other identifications that would have occupied either side.
‘I have seen the writing on the wall’
It just goes to show that being in the right place, at the right time, in the right lighting conditions; can sometimes turn up archaeology right under your very nose. Secondly, it also illustrates the sometime long continuity and presence of Ogham stones within Early Irish Christian sites. Despite such examples surviving in secondary contexts and a fragmented state; they suggest, at the very least, a presence at or near church sites prior to medieval construction in stone. How many more lie undetected in medieval church walls and buildings throughout the country?
Congratulations to all concerned at DIAS (and their project partners) on a hugely fascinating and valuable project. Making such data and information available online is not only a significant step in open access/research scholarship, but also a fantastic method of reaching out to a wider interested public. Perhaps most of all, it is a significant gift to future generations. Many Ogham stones, especially those that remain in the landscape, have understandably undergone erosion and wear in the subsequent centuries. Digitizing and scanning Ogham stones today, records them at intricate levels of detail for posterity, prior to any information contained on them being accidentally lost forever.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to do an impression of a child in a sweetshop.
+ + +
For more: See The Ogham 3D Website available at: http://ogham.celt.dias.ie/menu.php
Baslick: RO021-083001- & RO021-083005- (Archaeological Survey of Ireland, Record Details) available on http://www.irisharchaeology.ie. Compiled by Michael Moore. Revised: May 1st, 2013.
Doherty, C. (1984), ‘The basilica in early Ireland’, Peritia 3, 303–315.
Swift, C. (1996), ‘Christian Communities in Fifth and Sixth Century Ireland’, Trowel Vol. VII, 21-32.