Oghams and the Roman Epigraphic Habit in late Iron Age and early Medieval Ireland; Guest blog by Karen Murad

We are grateful to Karen Murad for contributing a guest blog this month. She is currently working towards her PhD at University College Dublin, analyzing Ireland’s relationship with the Roman Empire and its impact on Ireland’s early Medieval social and political developments. Once finished, her goal is to marry her research interests with her background in education in order to more widely promote Hiberno-Roman frontier studies to a range of audiences.

There is a trend going viral on social media at the moment, where women ask the menfolk in their lives, “How often do you think about the Roman Empire?” I find this trend to be generally delightful, mostly because the surprisingly positive response from many of the men in the video is indicative of just how much historical nerd-love there is for a subject I also hold near and dear to my heart.1 I would bet good money, however, that if you posed a follow-up question to the men in these videos – “how often do you think about Ireland and the Roman Empire?” – the response would be much less positive.

In fact, whenever I get the opportunity to tell people that I am currently studying Ireland’s role as a frontier of Rome, the reply is usually, “The Roman Empire? I didn’t think Ireland had anything to do with them!” I don’t mind this – quite the opposite, in fact, as it gives me a chance to explain to a captive audience the intricacies of recent research on Hiberno-Roman interactions.2 But it is true that Ireland’s relationship with the Roman Empire is a subject that remains very much confined to a niche corner of Academia, and has not yet permeated into the wider consciousness.

I have hope that this will change in time, particularly given that so much of what Ireland lauds as its “Golden Age” between the 6th and 8th centuries has its roots in the dynamic social and cultural changes in the late Iron Age that occurred as a direct result of interaction with both the Roman Empire and the sub-Roman European and Mediterranean worlds. One of the most characteristic aspects of this “Golden Age” is the literary output and the manuscript culture in Ireland , the earliest manifestation of which is the creation of the ogham script and the erection of monumental ogham stones. These ogham stones are almost quintessentially emblematic of Ireland and Irish culture, and yet both the script and the epigraphic habit itself are two cultural developments which originated within the Empire.3 Ogham stones are thus directly tied to the complex web of exchange and connectivity that existed between Ireland and the Empire throughout the Roman period, and understanding them better requires us to contextualize them within this historical framework.

Karen Murad poses with two thumbs up next to an ogham stone on display.
The author displaying exuberance for ogham stones.

This leads us to one very fundamental (and very difficult to answer) question: why would such Roman products take root and flourish in Ireland? This query lies at the very heart of my research project, and for both Roman material and Roman cultural exports I argue that Iron Age elites, as active agents in bringing Roman goods and behaviors into Ireland, did so because such things possessed cultural relevance in portraying, enhancing, or creating status within already-extant indigenous Iron Age systems of power and status.4 The same may hold true for ogham stones.

In the Iron Age and early Medieval periods, there were several ways in which power and status were articulated5. One of the main ways was through communal assembly and large-scale, community-based rituals, which drew together a far-flung community and emphasized the power of the individual ruler (or ruling family). These assemblies frequently involved the manipulation of the landscape, either through physical structures (such as the construction of monuments like Dun Ailline and Emain Macha) or the reuse of existing monuments (including Tara and Newgrange). In the early Medieval period, the earliest law- and status-tracts give us more information on the activities of these assemblies, including the performance of judicial proceedings and the recitation of laws and genealogies. These same tracts also provide further information on how power and status was defined and performed, and indicate that upward social mobility could be attained only through multi-generational meeting of strict criteria; that one’s status dictated their ability to enter into client agreements (either becoming one or taking one on); and that each level of society contained its own “elite” population, each with their own set of privileges and rights.

Monumental ogham stones fit neatly into both periods’ methods of displaying and constructing status. The presence of an ogham stone transforms a landscape in an arrestingly visual way, altering a viewer’s experience and understanding of that landscape. In this capacity, they could act as foci for communal rituals and public performances, as did, for example, the two ogham stones from Greenhill, Co. Cork, whose grooves attest to their possible use as sword-sharpeners in a ritual capacity (I-COR-003 and I-COR-004).6 Additionally, they represent control over resources. This could be land, as both the law-texts and extant, in situ ogham stones located on or near boundaries indicate that they had a role in establishing territorial claims, but equally it could be the exclusive patronage of the craftsman/men and literate scholars whose labor would have been necessary for the creation of the inscribed stone in the first place.

Two ogham stones in their landscape setting are visible in two photos set side by side. The first stone has been set in concrete and leans to one side, covered in moss and lichen. The second appears to have been recently cleaned, and sits against an overgrown area.
The Greenhill, Co. Cork ogham stones with distinctive sword-sharpening grooves.
© Ogham in 3D, 2013-08-07.

As well, the prevalence of ogham stones to emphasize genealogical descent – whether directly from a father or grandfather or more nebulously from a tribe or kin-group – aligns with the emphasis in the early law- and status-tracts on multi-generational and kin-based criteria for social advancement. In this respect, stones which show later amendments to their inscriptions appear to behave much like later, written genealogies, where family trees could be “pruned” or “grafted” depending on the needs of the communities at the time. One stone, from Co. Kerry, originally read, “[of] the three sons of Máelán”, but was later amended with the simple inscription which translates as, “[of] Cuircthe” (I-KER-027). Another Co. Kerry ogham’s first inscription has been almost entirely eradicated (thus preventing translation), but bears a later inscription which translates to, “…[of] Furudrán son of Doiligén” (I-KER-127). Such examples could represent descendants eager to emphasize their ancestral connections (and therefore their legal rights and privileges), or could represent some not-so-legitimate retconning of the public memory in order to bolster some shaky legal claims to territory or status. Regardless, the contents of the ogham inscriptions may represent the earliest stages of the transition from a verbal genealogical record to a written one, and one of the primary ways by which elites in the early Medieval period advertised and legitimized their status.

The Co. Kerry ogham stone whose inscriptions record the “three sons of Máelán” as well as “Cuircthe”.
© Nora White & Ogham in 3D, 2012-11-22.

Ogham stones, therefore, may represent attempts by certain Irish elite individuals or communities to marry traditional methods of status and power articulation with a new, deliberately selected, method in a way which would have still been familiar to the wider community. This could have been achieved through introducing epigraphic ogham into the complex relationship between assembly, oral performance, landscape manipulation, and resource control. In doing so, ogham stones represent the conscious adoption of not one, but two, Roman cultural products: literacy and the epigraphic habit. It is therefore not an issue just of the introduction of writing from the Empire, and the translation of the Irish language to an alphabet derived from Latin grammatical conventions, but of the full and enthusiastic adaptation of the Roman tendency to carve words into stone.7 The stones imply a conscious aligning of certain members of the community with the Roman world, and their regional and local distribution may be one way differences in responses to interaction with the Roman Empire can be assessed archaeologically.

So – how often do you think about Ireland and the Roman Empire now?


  1. I should confess, I do also find it somewhat maddening, because as a woman who studies the Roman frontiers, I find the gendering of a subject which should be pertinent and interesting to everyone to be unnecessarily divisive. That, however, is probably a discussion for another time. ↩︎
  2. When I say a captive audience, I mean literally. I work part-time as a server, and people – usually tourists – make the mistake of asking follow-up questions. Nobody wants to risk insulting the person holding their côte de boeuf hostage by asking them to please stop talking about the finds assemblage at Drumanagh Peninsula. ↩︎
  3. Regarding ogham stones as “quintessentially emblematic of Ireland and Irish culture”: it is true that the vast majority of the stones occur in Ireland, and general consensus places the birthplace of ogham in Ireland – but it should also be noted that ogham stones appear in both western Britain and Scotland, and that any designation of “quintessentially Irish” is a modern one, with modern nationalist overtones. I use the phrase here to refer back to the widespread perception I addressed earlier, that Ireland had nothing to do with the Roman Empire, and therefore emphasize the point that something considered so Irish actually has Roman roots. ↩︎
  4. This explains both the presence of certain types of material and adapted cultural byproducts, as well as the conspicuous absence of others – such as a coin-based economy, the usage of pottery, or urbanization – which did not fit into the existing systems of status display. Additionally, it helps explain the spread of material objects and behaviors throughout the various levels of late Iron Age/early Medieval society, as well as the distribution differences between regions, because Irish society was peppered throughout with various kinds of “elites”, all at different levels of hierarchy, who were adopting or rejecting these new methods of status display, depending on their cultural relevance. ↩︎
  5. For purposes of brevity I have combined the two in one paragraph, though the evidence indicates some differences between the two periods. ↩︎
  6. For more on this, see Connor Newman, “The Sword in the Stone: previously unrecognised archaeological evidence of ceremonies of the later Iron Age and early medieval period”, in G. Cooney, K. Becker, J. Coles, M. Ryan and S. Sievers (eds.), Relics of old decency: archaeological studies in later prehistory. Festschrift for Barry Raftery (Dublin: Wordwell, 2009): 425-36. ↩︎
  7. This is another point in favor of the argument that elites were very carefully selecting only relevant Roman material and behaviors to emulate in their own lives. Roman use of epigraphy was not limited to just territorial contexts; another frequent use of epigraphy was the creation and deposition of dedication stones to various deities. This is a use of epigraphy that is conspicuously absent from Ireland, implying that the conditions in which epigraphic ogham were deployed were the result of quite deliberate and specific choices made within a very particular social environment. ↩︎

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