Ancient Irish writing in 3D

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DUBLIN, Ireland – Irish and Scottish academics are studying new technologies in an attempt to protect Ogham’s old writing system. It is well known that the Celtic tribes wrote nothing, preferring to rely on memory, but they had one form of writing: Ogham (pronounced O-am) for some inscriptions, for example those found on the fallen down.

Ogham is an alphabet that is mainly found on stones throughout the ancient Celtic world. It is said in legend that it was designed by Ogma, the god of writing, but researchers do not know when its use begins. Julius Caesar mentions the Gauls using Ogham, but there are no samples of them in France. The script may have been derived from the runes or from Greek writing, as there were connections between ancient Greece and the Celtic world, and the Greek word for writing is “ogmos”.

Kilmalkedar Ogham Stone – Image credit: Patrice78500 – Public domain

The Ogham alphabet is a bit more opaque than the runic, and there are fewer inscriptions. In the Celtic world, it is mainly found in Ireland and Scotland, with some inscriptions in Wales and some in southwest England. There are a number of listings on Dartmoor, for example. It is first found around 400 CE, with most inscriptions dating from 500-600 CE.

However, the inscriptions that have lasted are in stone – mostly found on standing stones, in fact – and it is quite possible that there are earlier inscriptions on wood, which perished. It may have been developed as a secret language, accessible to the Irish, but not to those who read Latin.

Most of the inscriptions are on personal names. It appears to have been less widely used than Runes, in terms of the content of inscriptions.

The script also appears in a small number of 9th-century manuscripts. Most of the inscriptions, however, as noted, are not based on manuscripts and only a few are in museums: most remain in the wild, in their original locations, often on the mountainside and in the moor. This makes logging and recording these entries quite difficult.

Maynooth University and the University of Glasgow therefore plan to create a digital database of each example of 640 Ogham scripts dating from before the 1850s. They aim to create 3D models of all the inscriptions, making them look great. more widely available to the public through their website and also providing a record against which the effects of future weathering can be assessed.

The project states that “the ultimate goal of the Ogham 3D Project is to digitize and record in 3D as much as possible of the approximately four hundred surviving Ogham Stones and to make the resulting 3D models freely available on this website in the framework of a disciplinary digital multi-corpus of Ogham stones.

The Ogham in the 3D pilot project is supported by an expert advisory group comprising Professor Werner Nahm (Director of the School of Theoretical Physics at DIAS), Professor Fergus Kelly (School of Celtic Studies at DIAS), Damian McManus (Professor of Irish alumnus of Trinity College Dublin and author of A Guide to Ogam) and Fionnbarr Moore (Senior Archaeologist at the National Monuments Service, responsible for the registration and preservation of the Ogham Stones).

Katherine Forsyth, Professor of Celtic Studies at the University of Glasgow, says: “We hope this project will help… bring Ogham to the wider attention it deserves. Everyone has heard of the runes, but few are familiar with Ogham, a very unusual and incredibly intelligent writing system unique to these islands.

Old Irish professor at Maynooth, David Stifter, states that “The collaboration of a diverse and international team of epigraphers, archaeologists, linguists and philologists enables us to ask research questions that will contribute to a holistic picture. of the history of Ogham writing. We hope to better understand its significance as a cultural expression of Gaelic intellectual history far beyond the select group of Irish “Orthodox inscriptions”.

Ogham Stone near Traigh an Fhiona – Image credit: Anne Patterson, CC BY-SA 2.0

If you are into tattoos, you might want to keep an eye out for Professor Forsyth’s project, as she intends to use the digitizing process as inspiration for other creative projects, including the production of ‘An Ogham Tattoo Manual for Baden Press’ Think Before You Ink series.

If you are wondering about the connection between the Ogham and the tree alphabet that appears in so much of contemporary Druidism, it is not very old. The connection between this ancient alphabet and trees is solidified by Robert Graves in his book The White Goddess.

Technically, the script itself is called the Ogham, while the letters are known as Beth-Luis-Nion (Birch-Rowan-Ash). Each of the 20 symbols is linked to a particular tree and there are several different systems.

Graves took much of his research from the scholar Ogham RAS Macalister (1870 -1950). It is, unfortunately, somewhat unlikely that the system is, as Graves claims, an early tree calendar, but the idea has been picked up by modern paganism.

On its website, the Ogham 3D project pays homage to Macalister, citing his Corpus Inscriptionum Insularum Celticarum (1945) as providing a valuable record of the Ogham inscriptions. The new project will for example use its own numbering system. They also mention other initiatives, such as the Celtic inscribed stones project.

You can read more about the details of the Ogham 3D project by visiting their website.


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