A close-up showing part of the Ogham inscription found during the excavation. A full translation is still awaited. © Manx National Heritage
A recent Time Team investigation at a medieval chapel or keeill site on the Isle of Man has unearthed a remarkable stone slab that may reveal some interesting insights into the history of the island.
Several exciting finds were made at the filmed excavation at the Mount Murray Country Club, but the most unusual was a small stone slab bearing an incised inscription written in a script no longer in use.
The letters are from an alphabet known as Ogham, which has its origins in Ireland and was common around 1600 years ago. The tablet is also unique in that the few Ogham inscriptions previously discovered on the island have tended to be memorials to individuals or inscriptions with the Ogham alphabet spelt out.
“This find is really important – in fact, I’d go so far as to say that it’s of national significance, and is already causing a bit of a stir amongst academics from England and Scotland,” explained Andrew Johnson, Field Archaeologist for Manx National Heritage.
Ogham letters could be used to write in a number of different languages, and on first reading this inscription is written in what might be described as a form of Scots Gaelic, as spoken about 900 years ago.
"This is significant because on the island we might expect to find Ogham used to write in Old Irish from several hundred years earlier,” said Andrew.
© Manx National Heritage
“The inscription is still being worked on by specialists, but appears to refer to a group of 50 people. It’s still very early days, but this begs all kinds of questions about the language of the writer of the inscription as well as the identity of the people being described.”
Ogham is a very difficult script to decipher, consisting as it does of long horizontal lines with letters made from vertical scores that either cross or appear above and below. Archaeologists are however hopeful that the description may yield some interesting details.
"It may be talking about a congregation or 'flock' of 50 people although the initial excitement was that it could indicate a group of warriors because the the word 'posse' was suggested," added Andrew.
The excavation, which will be broadcast on Channel 4 early next year, also identified the site of the keeill itself and the enclosure in which it stood.
Although the Isle of Man boasts the remains of dozens of keeills, none of them are now intact and many of them were excavated over 100 years ago.
Almost none have been excavated to modern standards, and the investigation was invaluable in producing evidence about the construction of the walls, the doorway, and the level of the floor, providing archaeologists with an impression of what the structure looked like nearly a thousand years ago. The building materials were also identified as an unusual mixture of stone and turf.
The investigation followed a careful reconnaissance of a number of sites on the island, after Time Team had contacted Manx National Heritage earlier this year.