The British Museum’s Collection Database is a wonderful online resource containing over two million objects. It’s an incredible research tool in itself, for all periods and personages. Perhaps a lesser known aspect are some wonderful archaeological tidbits relating to finds from nineteenth century Ireland. Taking a virtual wander through the database one can stumble across some really intriguing objects, like this particular oddity from 1875; an early medieval Carolingian Brooch said to have been found in a bog at, or near, Ballycottin, Co. Cork.
The BM catalogue identifies it as a “gilt copper alloy cross brooch: equal-armed; cast, chip-carved, Anglo-Carolingian style animal in profile in each arm; silver domed-head pseudo-rivet in a lobe at the inner and outer corners of each arm“; Length: 4.4 centimetres, Length: 12 millimetres (setting), Width: 11 millimetres (setting). Overall, its decoration seems to be of 8th-9th century Tassilo style. But what is most intriguing, is what is contained within the central setting, ‘a flat, oval black glass setting inscribed with two lines of early Arabic script‘:
sha[‘a] [a]llah (or `bismillah’?) or tubna lilllah
‘As God wills (or In the name of Allah?)’ or ‘We have repented to God’
How could such an object end up in a bog in Co. Cork? Well, to be honest, it’s probably not that surprising really. Early Medieval Ireland and Carolingian Europe are known to have had many cultural and transportation connections; and the eight and ninth centuries are considered by many as being the apex of Irish ecclesiastical cultural activity and transmission on the continent (perhaps best personified in the personages of Sedulius Scotus and Johannes Scotus Eriugena). The south coast of Ireland is of course the closest area of the island that looks towards Europe.
While the brooch has long been included in archaeological and art historical discussions concerning connections and influences between the Early Medieval Islamic and Carolingian worlds; little attention has ever been paid to the local area of its discovery. A closer examination of the location and its likely early medieval setting could perhaps provide underlying indications that potentially shed new light on how such objects were used and viewed; and indeed, how it may have come to be lost in a Co. Cork bog.
Ballycottin is perched on the very edge of coastal Co. Cork, on a small peninsula about halfway between Youghal and Crosshaven. The first edition OS maps shows a small village and Coastguard Station at Ballycotton* village which was subsequently developed into a harbour/pier. It is likely that prior to large-scale early modern works, the location had long offered a natural harbourage/landing-place; seeing as it is nestled in the south-western corner of Ballycottin Bay, affording safe anchorage and general protection from prevailing westerly winds. Indeed, the location of Ballycotton* is known to have been included on several European maritime maps from the 14th to the 16th centuries.
Earlier medieval maritime activity is further suggested by the presence of two coastal promontory forts in the immediate vicinity (CO089-053- and CO089-054-); one of which is connected by a small track/road to Ballycottin. Irish Promontory Forts (an area defined by one or more banks/walls and/or fosses constructed across a promontory) can date anywhere from later prehistory onwards; but are generally considered Iron Age and could have been used/re-used into the early medieval period also. In any case, their presence suggests a local engagement with and interest in being ‘visible’ from a maritime perspective; and I tend to view their presence as potential locations where seasonal trade & exchange may have occurred within the early medieval period.
Bogged down in Etymology
The provenance of the find in a bog at, or near, Ballycottin is attested in a handwritten manuscript from 1909, some years after the fact. As with many such finds of the period, the exact location does not seem to have been recorded. The placename Ballycottin (Baile Choitín) is not expressly translated in the placenames database; but the term Coitín is a common enough element in Irish placenames. Although sometimes problematic and left with a question mark in certain examples, it carries a general meaning of ‘commonage/common land’ elsewhere in the country. Likely derived from Old Irish Coitchend which carries meanings of ‘common land, publically owned/shared’; a likely meaning behind Ballycottin, Baile Choitín, would therefore be ‘the townland of the comman area/commonage’.
Interestingly, the townland itself is ‘detached’ from its larger Civil Parish of Cloyne further inland. Indeed, a quick look at the OS historical map of Parish/Townland boundaries comprising the area around Ballycottin show an increased narrowing of parish divisions at this particular point on the coast; something that perhaps reflects an older interest in providing/maintaining multiple linear access ‘routes’ to an area of commonage perhaps connected with Ballycottin maritime activity. Irish parish and local townland boundaries were codified from the later medieval period onwards, and in many cases they represent even older local and regional boundaries. Indeed, the Ballycottin Electoral District comprises of only three other adjacent townlands; Ballycottin itself, along with Ballybane (An Baile Bán, ‘the white/grassy townland’), Ballynamona (Baile na Móna, ‘the townland of the bog’) and Ballytrasna (An Baile Trasna; ‘the townland of the crossing/cross over’). The placenames of the vicinity imply a boggy area to the north of Ballycottin and its cliffs, with a crossing point/access area within, or through it. In this regard, it is interesting to note that a modern-day cliff walk/path extends from Ballycottin to Ballytrasna, the location of one of the promontory forts previously mentioned.
Viewed within its landscape perspective the Ballycottin general area certainly matches ideal conditions for being an early medieval anchorage/landing-place; along with etymological indications of enshrined social memory involving common land and a possible routeway/exchange nodal point. The loss of such an object by someone in transit through such an area seems entirely plausible; giving rise to several possible scenarios. Was it a high status object intended for gift or trade? Was it a personal memento of distant lands? A wandering ecclesiastical returning home? Was the person who lost it hurrying to make a waiting boat; a continental trader returning to his ship? Or were they recently arrived, ill-dressed for Irish weather and struggling with the realities of navigating Irish wetlands?
In any case, the loss of such an object would have been keenly felt. Losing such a high status object would have represented a considerable financial loss in monetary terms alone; in addition to any underlying personal or religious attachment. It is perhaps important to distinguish between the object, its eventual loss and deposition, and its initial creation. The likelihood is that its life phases are long, inter-spaced and connected with several different owners at several times. Whoever dropped it in Co. Cork, may not have been the person for whom it was originally made, or intended.
Religious Dualism: Christian and Islamic Display
Concerning the objects creation, the presence of an early Arabic inscription concerning Allah within an overtly Christian artefact is especially interesting; and given the overwhelming religious aspect, hardly coincidental. Following the removal of the inscribed glass setting for examination in the 1990s, a BM Curator noted that “the edges are slightly bevelled making a very close fit, though whether damage to the collet is to accommodate the setting, or an indication that it has been roughly prised out in the past, is unclear“.
The central setting certainly doesn’t seem to have once been part of another artefact; and if not, then the prospect arises that the inscription was included as part of its initial creation, the cross being specifically made for the central piece or perhaps inscribed soon afterwards. In other words, it seems to be an overtly Christian object designed to be worn and displayed prominently; which has been augmented by someone seeking to invoke Allah in arabic, whilst displaying it in a similar vein.
Given the small size and darkness of the inscription, it seems unlikely that most observers would have been able to read or appreciate it offhand. Aside the vexed question as to how many literate people, either Christian or Muslim, could have potentially read it at all in the early medieval period; the possibility arises that the inscription may have been intended to be a somewhat personal statement within a larger public display.
If so, then are we looking at a private Islamic devotional expression within a Christian milieu? Or are we perhaps looking at a Christian expression within an Islamic milieu? Is it perhaps a product of ongoing cultural exchange and transmission between Christian and Islamic kingdoms of southwestern Europe from the eight century onwards? As a product of Anglo-Carolingian artistic fusion, the object already demonstrates cross-fertilisation. The inclusion of an arabic amuletic invocation on an equally apotropaic cross brooch has been viewed by some as representing a translation and equation of Christian and Islamic protective charms. Also compelling, is the argument that the black glass of the inscription setting may be a ‘cheaper’ alternative to Black Jasper, a gemstone considered to have carried associations of healing, protection and good fortune in the early medieval period.
Personally, I’m inclined to view it as an embodiment of all the above, a product of medieval multicultural interchange. Such a high status object of display would seem to have not only belonged to a person who regularly mixed within certain strata of both Christian and Muslim societies; but also a person who may have been interested in projecting a compatible linguistic and religious duality upon first impression. Such a projection would have been particularly practical as well as appropriate, to say, an early medieval maritime trader engaged in regular trips (across occasionally dangerous seas) involving up close & personal ‘business meetings’ with officials & representatives in various Irish, Anglo-Saxon, Frankish and Umayyad Hispanic ports/harbours. A trader who may well have accidentally lost it in a wet and windy bog surrounding such a site at Ballycottin, Co. Cork.
All in all, it’s a fascinating object in itself, let alone its ultimate providence within Ireland (whenever that may have been). It not only illustrates how material culture can sometimes reflect broader themes and parameters within wider cultural contexts; but also symbolises something normally invisible in the archaeological record: the cultural transmission and articulation of ideas, concepts, peoples and multiple identities in conjunction with economic networks of trade and exchange. In addition, it serves as a physical reminder that early medieval Ireland was part of a wider maritime network ‘receiving’ such objects, peoples and ideas as well as ‘exporting’ its own.
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(Updated: 12/04/13) Ballycotton town has a slightly different modern English spelling to that of Ballycottin, the townland within which it resides (thanks Proinsias!)
(Updated: 08/10/17) Thanks to Dr. Caitlin Green, I have just been made aware of a fascinating blog post on the Ballycottin Brooch by Jaś Elsner and Stefanie Lenk, Installing ‘Imagining the Divine’ #3: 6th October; who are blogging the installation of the Ashmolean Museum’s forthcoming exhibition Imagining the Divine: Art and the Rise of World Religions. In it, they detail the fact that the arrangement of the pin behind the brooch ‘as intended to be seen when the bead became part of a brooch’ results in the Arabic inscription running the wrong way round – vertically not horizontally.
This is something that never even crossed my mind when writing the original post, and I never even thought to check. As such, it throws into question a large part of the discussion above. Seen from a practical, display background, it seems entirely possible that the later (Christian?) owners of the brooch, augmented/arranged the cross, without knowledge of or regard for, the Arabic inscription within.
It just goes to show how easy it is to wax lyrical about stuff in archaeological terms, without having all the physical realities to hand. While I would still like to view the object, originally, as having a dual religious aspect – this ‘new’ information is more than enough to make me reconsider everything above.
I therefore wish to acknowledge that fact – it is entirely likely that my previous interpretation of the object was completely romantic/wrong.
Ballycotton, County Cork, Ireland, available at: http://www.inyourfootsteps.com/sailing/harbours/32/ballycotton
Carolingian brooch/amulet from Ballycottin, Ireland. Department: Prehistory and Europe. Registration number: 1875,1211.1; British Musuem Collection Database, available at: http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/search_the_collection_database/term_details.aspx?bibId=157
Green, D. H. & Siegmund, F. (2003) The Continental Saxons from the Migration Period to the Tenth Century: An Ethnographic Perspective, Boydell Press.
Lamaute, S. (2012) ‘The Ballycottin Brooch: An Example of Cross-Cultural Translation’, Beyond Borders: A Medieval History of Art Blog, Monday 20 August 2012, Available at: http://beyondborders-medievalblog.blogspot.ie/2012/08/theballycottin-cross-brooch-is-part-of.html
Mahr, A. (1932) Christian Art in Ancient Ireland, I. Dublin.
Ó Cróinín, D. (1995) Early Medieval Ireland 400-1200. Harlow: Longman.
Petersen, Andrew (2008). ‘The archaeology of Islam in Britain: recognition and potential’, Antiquity 82 (318), 1080-1092; available at: http://antiquity.ac.uk/Ant/082/1080/ant0821080.pdf
Porter, Venetia, (2011) Arabic and Persian Seals and Amulets in the British Museum, London, BMP.
Raftery, J. (ed) (1941) Christian Art in Ancient Ireland, II. Dublin.
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Wilson, D.M. (1958) ‘An Early Carolingian Finger-Ring’, The British Museum Quarterly , Vol. 21, No. 3, 80-82