OMG: Ogam in 3D – Exciting New Database from Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies

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Ogham, Aghadoe, County Kerry.
Image: Jeremy Keith/Flickr Commons
(Used under a CC Licence)

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.

Ogham Stone at Kilmalkedar Church

Ogham Stone at Kilmalkedar Church, Co. Kerry
Image: Eileen Henderson (Used under a CC Licence)

‘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.

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Baslick Church Wall – Detail (Image: Author)

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?”

Ogham Fragment, Baslick, Co. Roscommon [RO021-083005-] (Image: Author)

‘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

__________________________________________________________________________

Bibliography

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.

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7 thoughts on “OMG: Ogam in 3D – Exciting New Database from Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies

  1. This is indeed a very exciting project and one which is welcome to scholars and students alike. However, in your blog above, no mention is given to the use of ogam stones as boundary markers and grave stones. The use of the Latin alphabet does not necessarily imply that these objects were Christian in origin, indeed, some are known to predate Christianity by at least a century (Kelly 1988). Furthermore, the use of ogam stones as boundary markers is explicitly mentioned in the ‘Archaic Legal Poem’, as the ‘stone pillars of contest’ published by Binchy in Celtica 9 (1971). This practice of burial on boundaries has a precedence in the Iron Age custom of Bog body burials. In a T.M. Charles Edwards article on ‘Boundaries in Irish Law’, the case is made for these stones of contest being a secular construct for resolving title disputes over land inheritance. He states ‘the inscriptions over graves have the same role in showing title to land as charters or other deeds in a more literate age.’ The Christian church, when first arrived on these shores, were often allocated marginal land within the tuath, often the land they were assigned on which to build their churches was placed on a boundary, or border. This could account for the association of ogam stones and churches. Ó Cróinín (1995) states that of the 300 or more so known examples of ogam stones ‘There are hardly more than a dozen that show any trace of Christian influence.’ Katherine Simms in ‘Early Christian Ireland’ also relates how many ogam stones were defaced, eradicating any association with pagan gods, and ‘Christianising’ them. The association of ogam stones and medieval churches, many being incorporated into the walls of these churches, perhaps show how these stones were then viewed merely as nothing more than a relic of pagan times and as such,were then utilised as a useful building material.
    It is hoped that this project from the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies will enhance our understanding of these enigmatic monuments and will facilitate future debate and comprehension of Ireland at this crucial and defining time in our history.

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  2. Hi Marcus,

    Many thanks for the detailed comment! You make some very pertinent points. Appreciate you talking the time to do so.

    I didn’t mention the stone boundary marker/border attributes as I wanted to focus on the advent, development and occurrence of the inscriptions themselves and their potential relationship to early Christianity. There are of course many examples of inscriptions placed on much older prehistoric standing stones. Of course they served as boundary markers and legal ‘witnesses’ as mentioned in later med litt; but I think an important element to consider is why the form of those inscriptions developed when they did. i.e. at the same time as Christianity was being introduced; and also, why insular people chose to utilise some of the already existing markers in such a manner that emulated external fashions. As such, its important to distinguish between the medium of transmission (stone) and that being transmitted (inscription/memory). I had no intention of suggesting that the original objects/stones were Christian in origin; but rather, the motivation and desire to use them in such a way seems to be linked with an awareness of similar expressions in Latin using cultures. It seems to me, that, if one is seeking to emulate a new Latin literate cultural practice in an old environment/landscape; then an interest in, if not an openess to other such cultural attributes, such as Christianity, will not be far away or behind.

    Not sure how anyone could confidently say that Ogam predates Christianity by a century; seeing as we have no firm date for the introduction of the religion; but rather a general time frame of early fifth century. I think scholarship in general would be inclined to accept that the earliest historical references (Patricius and Prosper) are indicative of an emerging Christianity that reflects earlier contacts and influence in previous generations…which would make early Ogam development and early Irish Christianity close contemporaries. Of course, therein lies their value as potential early indicators of same.

    I’m also not sure I would go along with them as being individual ‘grave markers’ in general; the arch evidence would seem to suggest memorials which, as you say, likely doubled as dynastic/boundary markers; but which also sometimes marked late prehistoric communal burial mounds/features that seem to have been prime candidates for future ecclesiastical sites and cemeteries. An interesting facet of new evidence coming from arch geophys is that some of these church sites seem to have been established either adjacent or incorporating, ancestral burial grounds. (There seems to have been two fertaes/barrows right beside Baslick, mentioned in the post). Rather than only seeing such locations as a mere result of being ‘allocated marginal land’; we may in fact be looking at somewhat of a juxtaposition of what was there first i.e. ancestral burials on borders; marked/commemorated by monumental expression in the form of standing stones. The advent of commemorating ancestral figures at such locations in an inscription form based on latin from c400 AD onwards; suggests an original (and continuing) desire to do so in a new fashion. Such a new preoccupation seems to me to be a logical and quite essential part of a transition period between contrasting cosmologies; especially one which seems to have been influenced from practices and cultures in Romano-Britain and Gaul.

    Re: Charles-Edwards, a great article from 1976, but he does later (in the magnificent ‘Early Christian Ireland’, 2000, 175) provide a caveat regarding the portrayal of individual stones and their uses as secular constructs as being known only in general terms from later centuries.

    I’m not aware of many modern scholars who would buy the ‘pagan gods/Christian defacement’ theories which were prominent in some early twentieth century scholarship. [I presume your ref to Simms is a mistake for Kathleen Hughes 😉 ] Nor does it seem logical that (if they were considered ‘a relic of pagan times’) that they would be left lying in and around early Irish church sites for centuries prior to being reused for building material. There’s a long gap between c.400 AD and the advent of the earliest stone churches from c.900-1100 AD and onwards. To me, that implies a certain reverence and interest in their preservation, at least up to that point; perhaps even, a recognition of past association, presence and function in conjunction with the very church site itself (i.e. commemorated ancestors/dynasty/burial grounds), regardless of how they may have been read/not read. All that aside (and although its very much in secondary context) their later association with/removal to ecclesiastical sites is still compelling. Those found/located within ecclesiastical contexts form the largest category of the entire corpus in Ireland (Moore, 1998). If they were just seen as ideal building material, then ecclesiastical figures would seem to have been very keen in keeping them safe for a few centuries, before seeking them out for such 🙂

    Ó Cróinín’s dozen or so ‘overtly Christian’ is a fair point, yet perhaps based only on the numbers bearing Crosses/ecclesiastical words (in themselves, usually slightly later examples, based on continental parallels); yet even then, certain crosses seem to have been inscribed at the same time as their ogham inscriptions; not after (Swift, 2001). We should also not forget those which have overtly Latin names; or indeed, the number of inscriptions that bear pre-apocope forms of Irish (fifth century) as opposed to pre-syncope/post-syncope (late sixth/seventh century) (MacManus,1991;Swift, 1997). In the same regard, one of the earliest ogham qualifying forms ‘koi’ (is thought to be a translation of a Christian grave formula ‘hic iacet’ (‘here lies’); a convention used on the continent in the fifth century (Swift, 2001).

    All in all, I find it difficult to imagine there was ever any ‘pagan’ association with them at all from early Christians; particularly as (leaving aside the Latin basis) their subsequent vernacular linguistic development, physical execution and public display would have surely been witnessed by a growing number of contemporary Christians throughout the sixth and seventh centuries (some of whom seem to have been keen to use such ‘pagan’ ogam themselves in conjunction with crosses). If they were the products of pagan activity, then it would mean that such pagans borrowed not only an underlying Latin basis, but also (in many cases) a common Christian inscription formula (yet oddly enough, remained pagan); all the while managing to survive in (in a quasi-limbo) within an ever increasing Christian landscape and society for centuries after they ceased to be inscribed in stone; before many being re-used/removed/re-located at many ecclesiastical sites. It would also mean that, paradoxically, despite being ‘a relic of pagan times’, scholastic and manuscript ogham forms in later medieval manuscripts in Ireland and the continent continued to be modified, studied and depicted by Christian scribes in monastic milieu’s 😉

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  3. I link this article to my blog and put yours’ in my wp-following links, Terry. I discover we’re sort of colleagues 😉 Many thanks for useful and nice info on Early Christ. Ireland

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