By Dr Nora White, OG(H)AM’s Irish Postdoctoral Researcher
When we think of ogham stones, we imagine an ogham-inscribed pillar or standing stone in the landscape, possibly marking a burial or a territory boundary. However, a high percentage of our ogham stones were actually first found in secondary locations, rather than in their original position. Not only were they moved, but they were also frequently repurposed.
Recycling of earlier stone monuments in later constructions or for other purposes is common in all periods, but this seems particularly true of inscribed stones like ogham stones. They have been found recycled as building material in various later structures, as gate posts, as scratching posts for livestock, as a seat, a foot-bridge and a kneeling stone at a well. This happened as late as the end of the 19th century, as at Killeen Cormac / Cill Fhine Chormaic in Co. Kildare, which is unusual in having multiple oghams at a single site. One of its seven ogham stones was broken up and repurposed as building material in the construction of a protective wall around the site in the 1890s. Most examples of repurposed ogham stones, however, come from a much earlier period.
Souterrains and ogham
Souterrains are a common feature of the early medieval Irish period, dating from the second half of first millennium and into the early centuries of the second millennium AD. These underground structures (French sous terrain ‘under ground’), consisting of one or more chambers connected by narrow passages or creepways, are typically found in raths (or ringforts) but are sometimes associated with early Christian ecclesiastical enclosures. Although occasionally tunnelled into rock or compact clay, they were usually constructed of drystone-walling with a lintelled roof over the passages and a corbelled roof over the chambers. The general size and shape of ogham stones made them ideal for recycling as lintels, and sometimes also support stones, in souterrains. No doubt many uninscribed prehistoric standing stones were similarly reused in this way.
Recycling of ogham stones in souterrain construction is particularly common in Co. Cork, where over 50% of surviving examples were discovered repurposed in this way. Three-quarters of the 28 pillars in University College Cork’s famous ‘ogham corridor’ collection were discovered in souterrains in the county. These include twelve out of a total of fifteen ogham stones recovered from a single souterrain at Ballyknock / Baile an Chnoic in East Cork, the largest group of oghams from a single site anywhere in Ireland or Britain.
It is not clear to what extent the phenomenon of reuse of ogham stones was simply a practical measure to take advantage of available building material, or whether they held special significance. Although it is difficult to know how widespread ogham literacy was at this time, the survival of a small number of portable ogham-inscribed objects and examples of ogham graffiti (for example at Knowth / Cnóbha) suggest that secular knowledge of ogham remained in the 8th/9th centuries and later. In some cases, the ogham stones were recycled just a century or two after they were originally erected, and it is worth noting that the inscriptions are generally positioned in the new structures so that they are visible.
Churches and ogham
Ogham stones are quite frequently found at early church sites, such as Kilmalkedar / Cill Maoilchéadar Co. Kerry and Ardmore / Aird Mhór, Co. Waterford. This is paralleled in Scotland with Pictish symbol stones. In both cases, this may suggest that the church was built at or close to an earlier burial ground or boundary site where the stones were already present, rather than the stones being brought from elsewhere to the church. There are also examples of fragments of ogham stones (also quernstones and cross-slabs) recycled in later medieval church constructions. Again this is comparable to the symbolic incorporation of Scandinavian runestones into early churches. Examples of ogham reuse in Ireland include Ardmore / Aird Mhór I, which was originally discovered built into St. Declan’s oratory; Ardfert II found built into Templenagriffin chapel at Ardfert / Ard Fhearta, Co. Kerry and two examples identified at Churchclara / Clárach an Teampaill, Co. Kilkenny. However, there is one exceptional church in west Waterford in which multiple ogham stones and fragments have been recycled, mainly as lintels over the windows and door.
Knockboy / Cnoc Buí ogham church
The medieval parish church of Seskinan (townland of Knockboy / Cnoc Buí) has been approximately dated to the late 14th or early 15th century. The incorporation of ogham stones as internal lintels over most of the windows and one of the two doors was first noted and recorded by George Victor du Noyer in 1851. Some of his (and other antiquarian) sketches of the church are available via the Royal Irish Academy online catalogue. Two further ogham stones, not used as building material, were later discovered at the site. One has been erected in a corner of the church and the other has been lost since the 1940s (details of the latter’s inscription by David Stifter, here).
In 2013, the ogham stones at the site were scheduled for 3D recording by the Ogham in 3D project (predecessor of the OG(H)AM project). However, the structure was heavily covered in ivy and other vegetation, and particularly the west gable (with two ogham lintels and a loose ogham stone beneath) and the north wall window (with an ogham lintel) were in danger of collapse. Only an ivy-covered stump was left of the double bell-cote in the west gable as sketched by du Noyer and photographed by Canon Power.
A conservation project, primarily funded by the Heritage Council Community grants scheme, was initiated in 2014 with archaeological and conservation assessments informing a conservation plan for the site. The project brings together the local community (Knockboy Graveyard Committee), heritage professionals and state agencies, such as the National Monuments Service and Waterford County Council, to preserve and maintain the site for future generations. This project has also included a 3D survey of the ogham stones and the church. One of the major phases of the conservation work in 2019 involved stabilising the extremely vulnerable area around the north wall window. The ogham-inscribed lintel had to be temporarily removed while the wall at either side was stabilised (documented here). The inscription on it reads: […]ER[A]T[I] M[U]C[OI] NETAS[EGAM]ONAS ‘[…] descendant of Nad-Segamon (champion of Segamo)’ and is approximately dated on linguistic grounds to the 6th century (or possibly even late 5th century) AD. The kin group, mucoi Neta-Segamonas, is also mentioned on ogham stones at nearby Ardmore / Aird Mhór and Island / An tOileán, suggesting that this was an important dynasty in the area in the early 6th century. It is also possible that a Nia-Segamon listed in historical sources as a prehistoric king of Cashel is the same ancestor named in these inscriptions.
Stone mason Tom Pollard and his team made a number of interesting finds at the site during the course of the conservation work, including roof slates, a mason’s mark, a possible field roller and a quernstone fragment. In 2021, Tom also discovered a fragment of a ninth ogham stone low down in the south wall of the church. Unfortunately, there is not enough surviving of the inscription to identify a name but it is an important new discovery adding to the story of this unique site.
This year (2022) may see the completion of conservation works at Knockboy and the beginning of a new chapter in the story of this fascinating site (follow the progress here). Watch out for future blog posts to find out more about ogham inscribed monuments and objects and the broader context in which they are found!