Wednesday, October 18, 2017

"Always remember to draw the swastika turning to the right": Some thoughts on swastika directionality in Early Medieval Irish Art

Swastikas are, for a number of reasons, endlessly fascinating symbols. Like all symbols, they are only invested with the meanings we give them. Otherwise they are just little shapes and drawings that mean nothing in and of themselves. Owing to its long history and brief (if traumatic) association with Nazism, the swastika probably has a stronger resonance than most. You won’t spend long on the internet attempting to discuss the swastika before someone, trying to be helpful, notes that the Nazi version rotated counter-clockwise (elbows pointing left) and was bad, but the good Buddhist/Hindu version rotated clockwise. They may be trying to be helpful, but they are invariably wrong. It’s true that the version Adolf Hitler designed for the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei only went one direction: counter-clockwise. What’s wrong is that not all other (i.e. non-Nazi) swastikas turn the opposite direction (elbows pointing right).

Rather than dutifully plod through a debunking of this easily-researched falsehood, I want to look at directionality in Irish swastikas, a topic that has not been previously discussed. According to my research, there are 34 ‘items’ in, or of Irish manufacture, that bear some form of swastika. I use the term ‘items’ as it encompasses everything from small artefacts up to large pieces such as high crosses and one megalithic orthostat. Some of these are decorated with a single swastika, while others have up to 37. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to confine myself to the 17 Early Medieval items, in or of Ireland, that are, in one form or another, adorned with swastikas.

Aglish, Co. Kerry. (Source: Left | Right)
The largest single group within this corpus are eight cross-inscribed pillars, half of which are found in Kerry. Arguably the most famous of these is the Aglish pillar stone. It has a distinctive equal-armed cross with expanded terminals, set within a circle, at its head and a line of ogham script running down each side. The late Etienne Rynne dated this example to the 5th or 6th centuries, but more recent work by Swift suggests a date in the 6th to 7th centuries. Just below the cross there are two swastikas, one on either side of a gnomon or spear. Both are anti-clockwise versions.

Inishvickillane, Co. Kerry (Source)

Inishvickillane, Co. Kerry (Cuppage 1986)
The next pillar stone is from Inishvickillane, Co. Kerry, and similarly dates from the 6th to 7th centuries. Three faces of the stone are decorated with variants of the Latin cross. Two are composed of simple, incised lines, while the third has terminals decorate with equilateral triangles and a square at the junction of the shaft and cross-beam. The fourth side bears the swastika (rotating anticlockwise), composed of simple incised lines with an open square at the junction of the shaft and cross-beam. It is clear from the context that this should not be viewed as a symbol apart from the three crosses, but as another form of christian cross, no different to the others. The central point here is that swastikas appearing in christian art cannot be seen as anything other than christian in inspiration and intent. In the same way that saltires, taus, along with Greek and Latin varieties are all variations on the cross theme, so too is the swastika in these contexts.

Cloon West, Co. Kerry (Rynne 1990)

Cloon West, Co. Kerry (Source)

Cloon West, Co. Kerry (Source)
Cloon West, Co. Kerry (Source: O'Sullivan & Sheehan 1996)
At Cloon West in Co Kerry there are two pillar stones standing near each other that, between them bear five swastikas. The first of these has two swastikas on one side and one on the other. All three swastikas, though differing in form, are clearly anticlockwise. One side has a Latin cross with triangular terminals and a pelta above a curving, sinuous swastika. The other side has a similar swastika at the bottom, enhanced by an incised outline. Above this is rectilinear swastika, composed of incised lines and, again, enhanced by an incised, square outline. This latter symbol is connected by a single vertical line to a Greek cross with expanded terminals, inside a decorative border. The second tone has plain Latin crosses on each of its wider faces, both with expanded terminals. One of these crosses sits on circular design, reminiscent of the circle of decoration on the previous slab, and the ornamental patterns on each of its sides. On this example, the swastikas are placed one on each of the narrower sides. Stylistically, they are the same as the one on the previous stone – simple incised rectilinear lines inside a squared outline. The major difference here is that both swastikas are of the clockwise variety.

Fuerty, Co. Roscommon (Source: Courtesy of Gearóid Ó Díomasaigh, Roscommon 3D project)

Fuerty, Co. Roscommon (Source: Courtesy of Gearóid Ó Díomasaigh, Roscommon 3D project)

Next, we come to the partial swastika from Fuerty, Co Roscommon. It is thought to date to the 9th to 11th centuries and is executed in false relied. Although only partially preserved, it is clear that the swastika here was conceived as quite similar to the previous example, with an incised outline running around a central swastika figure. It is also clear that the swastika is of the anticlockwise type.

Cliffoney, Co. Sligo (Source: Left | Right)

At Cliffoney, Co. Sligo, a slab at Brigid’s Well is decorated with a long Latin cross. The lower shaft of the cross and arms are decorated with a series of saltires. The head of the cross is roughly square and contains an anticlockwise rotating swastika. The junction of the arms and head is taken up with a series of concentric circles while the top of the cross is covered with a curly-ended pelta shape.

Termons, Church Island, Co. Cork (Source)

There are two more stones to add to this collection. The first is from Termons, Church Island, Co. Cork. It is described as incorporating a debased form of the swastika at the junction of the shaft and arms. I’ve never been particularly convinced by this example as a true swastika, and the only image I can find doesn’t give any clear impression of directionality. The other stone is from Killaraght, Co. Sligo. The only description I have of it is the following: “A piece of Old Red Sandstone, probably of Early Christian date, can be seen in the old section of the graveyard. It has four D-shaped projections, the top of each is decorated with a swastika” (M B Timony: Killaraght Early Christian Cross Slab). Unfortunately, I do not possess a photograph or drawing of this stone and do not know any more about it.

Kilkieran, Co. Kilkenny (Source)

Kilkieran, Co. Kilkenny (Source: Photograph of drawing on information board by Chris McClintock)

While the symbol is relatively popular in the cross-inscribed stone tradition, it is almost completely absent from the corpus of High Crosses. That is, except for the example from Kilkieran, Co. Kilkenny. The cross is part of the ‘Ahenny Group’ and dates to the 8th or 9th centuries, making it contemporary with some of the examples mentioned above and among the earlier High Crosses. What I can make out from the available imagery is that the arms of the cross were each decorated with a rectilinear, if slightly disjointed, swastika, one going in each direction. The head of the cross appears to have had a form of swastika composed of curvilinear lines, going in a clockwise direction. There are two further areas of decoration that – in the right light – might be interpreted as swastikas, but are just too indistinct to be sure. For the purposes of this research, I’m reluctant to even include them as ‘possibles’.

Lindisfarne, England (Source)

Although Lindisfarne is on the east coast of England, it is considered to have been an Irish monastery, having been founded by Irish monks from Iona. The illuminated manuscript known as the Lindisfarne Gospels is in the Insular style and dates to around 700 AD. Folio 210v is a ‘carpet page’, a characteristic feature of the Insular manuscript tradition where the page is given over to elaborate ornamentation. In this example, prefacing the Gospel of John, the central decorative item is an equal-armed Greek cross. At the cardinal points, there are T-shaped or ‘Tau’ crosses, and the four angles are decorated with L-shaped pieces. In each of four gaps between the ends of the L-shaped pieces and the tau crosses there is a square block, each of which contains a swastika. The top two turn to the left (anticlockwise), while the lower pair turn clockwise.

Cathedral Hill, Co Armagh (Source: Top: Gaskell-Brown & Harper 1984 | Bottom: Edwards 1990)
At Cathedral Hill, Co Armagh, excavation by Cynthia Gaskell Brown and A.E.T. Harper in 1968 recovered a bone knife handle from a dump of material, pushed into a ditch. Judging by the associated material, it would appear to date to the broad period from the 5th to 10th centuries. It is also decorated with four swastikas, each one composed of simple, incised lines, enhanced by an incised outline, giving the whole the form of a small square. As far as I can ascertain from both the published drawing and photograph, two swastikas turn anticlockwise, while one turns the opposite direction. Unfortunately, I cannot be sure of the direction of the other example and while I suspect that it would turn clockwise (giving two of each type), I cannot be certain and have assigned this to my ‘Unclear’ category.

Oseberg, Norway (Source: Paul Parker via Flickr. Reproduced by kind permission)
The final group are all of metal, and represent both religious and secular prestige goods. The first of these is the so-called ‘buddha bucket’ from Oseberg, Norway. The bucket is thought to have been created in the late 7th century, making it quite the heirloom by the time it was deposited as part of the funeral offerings in the mid-9th century. The bucket is composed of yew wood staves, bound together with copper strips. The junction between the rim and the handle is decorated with a small figure in copper alloy, notable for his crossed legs position. He also has a centre-parted hairstyle that can be paralleled on the figure of St Matthew from the Book of Durrow, itself dating to the period from 650-700 AD. The figure’s chest bears a large Greek cross with millefiori decoration in the form of multiple small saltire crosses (50, by my count). Each of the angles of the Greek cross are filled by a four interlocking tau crosses in yellow enamel, composed in such a way as to create a swastika from the linear voids between them. However, the artist arranged the taus in such a way as to have the top left and bottom right swastikas rotate anticlockwise, while the remainder move in the opposite direction.

Løland, Norway (Source: Bruce-Mitford 2005)

At Løland, Norway, a hanging bowl escutcheon of possible Irish manufacture was recovered from a burial and is thought to date to the 8th or early 9th centuries. Here two human masks with ovoid eyes, long noses and wide mouths are placed on either side of a square. The square contains an arrangement of four T-shapes that, like the Oseberg example, create a swastika in the void between them. In this case the swastika is rotating in a clockwise direction.

Coolbuck crannog, Lough Eyes, Co Fermanagh (Source: Bourke, 2000)

A thin strip of decorated metal from Coolbuck crannog in Lough Eyes, Co Fermanagh, bears four square, stamped motifs. It is unclear what this item was originally part of, but it seems reasonable to suggest that it was attached to a wooden or leather background of some kind, using the recessed nail holes. Although atypical of Irish metalwork, it has been suggested that it was created as a repair piece for a hanging bowl during the 8th century. Whatever its function, one of the square decorations bears a clearly stamped swastika, spinning in an anticlockwise direction.

Lagore, Co. Meath (Source: Lucas et al. 1961)

The list of archaeological acquisitions for the year 1959 includes an image of the ring portion of a penannular brooch from Lagore, Co. Meath, dating to the 6th or 7th century. The published description indicates that the right-hand terminal is decorated with three chequerboard plaques of millefiori set in a red enamel background. The decorative elements are completed by the addition of a fourth blue and white millefiori plaque, this time bearing four swastikas. The two on the left turn anti clockwise, while the two on the right turn in the opposite direction. Each swastika is set within the quadrants of a pair of lines intersecting in an x-shape. It may be pushing the evidence too far to describe this as a formal saltire cross. The opposite terminal appears to have been decorated in the same manner, but not enough survives to be sure of the swastika’s directionality.

Ardagh, Co Limerick (Source: Dr M Comber, NUIG)

The Ardagh hoard from Co Limerick is justly famous as one of the great metalwork accomplishments of this period. The central piece within the hoard, the great Ardagh Chalice, was created during the eighth century and bears a large amount of intricate and detailed decoration on its various elements. In particular, I want to note two curving panels on the underside of the foot-ring. Each panel bears 72 incised Tau shapes, arranged in 18 groups of four. Each group of four produces a swastika shape at their intersection. Thus, there are 36 swastikas between the two panels. I only have an image of one of these panels, so can’t be sure of the directionality of the entire set. The 18 swastikas currently visible to me are all rotating clockwise.

St Patrick’s Bell shrine (Source)
The final piece in my catalogue is the spectacular object known as St Patrick’s Bell shrine. The external shrine was commissioned by King Domnall Ua Lochlainn between 1091 and 1105. The front and sides, along with the entirety of crest show liberal use of ‘Urnes style’ serpentine forms, indicating a significant Viking artistic influence. Beautiful as these are, I’m only interested in the back panel. Here a rather wonderful 3D effect is conjured up through the use of a silver grille set over a sheet of gilded bronze. The first image that hits the observer is that of the repeated use of equal-armed Greek crosses formed in the voids of the silver grille. The border is completed through the inclusion of 10 tau crosses, along with two L-shapes. More difficult to perceive, however, are the 37 clockwise-spinning swastikas formed from solid silver areas between the Greek crosses.

By my count, these 17 items bear 109 swastikas between them. These may be broken down as follows:

Clockwise:           67           61.5%
Anticlockwise:   18           16.5%
Unknown:           24           22%

From this it should be clear that anti-clockwise swastikas were a small-scale, but established, element of the Early Medieval artistic repertoire. As such they should not be seen as unusual or in any way anomalous. My only reservation in using these figures is that one single item (St Patrick’s Bell Shrine) makes up just over one-third of the examples (37 of 109), considerably skewing the data. Perhaps a fairer way of looking at the corpus is to restructure the data by a count of the occurrences by type. This means that an artefact with multiple swastikas would count as a single instance in each direction. Thus, St Patrick’s Bell Shrine is reweighted to count as 1 as all of its examples are clockwise. However, the four examples seen on the Lindisfarne carpet page count as 2, with examples rotating in each direction. Reweighted in this manner we see a more balanced account of swastika occurrences in Irish Early Medieval art:

Clockwise:           9              39%
Anticlockwise:   10           43.5%
Unknown:           4              17.5%

Seen in this way, anticlockwise swastika symbols make up approximately half of the recognised examples. However we chose to enumerate the examples within the Early Medieval art, the question remains as to the meaning of the swastika in such contexts. I have no difficulty in seeing the swastika as a sun symbol in other contexts – frequently associated with horses as the motive force – the evidence just doesn’t appear to be there to make the same case for the Irish examples. I believe that a competent case was put forward by Rynne that the swastika on the 15th century McMahon tomb in Ennis Friary may be viably interpreted as a symbol of Christian resurrection. Such an interpretation would be consistent with its use on the roughly 16th century grave slab at St James’ graveyard in Dingle, Co. Kerry. However, I simply do not see that as a conclusion that can be legitimately drawn directly from the earlier Irish material. Instead, I would look towards the association of the swastika with other symbols where it occurs. Of the 17 extant examples, 12 (70.5%) are associated with some form of christian cross, with some having more than one association. These include 5 with Greek crosses (29.4%), along with the same numbers of both Latin and Tau crosses. A further two (11.8%) are associated with Saltires. Thus, my argument is that the swastika symbol is (in these contexts) simply a variant form of christian cross, no different than any of the others. Implicit within that is the understanding that the swastika form embodies those aspects of christian teaching commonly associated with other cross forms, including teachings around the death and resurrection of Jesus and the claims of afterlife salvation. Thus, the directionality of the symbol is divorced from its older use as a sun symbol and of no real significance in this context. There is no 'right' or 'wrong' direction for an Irish swastika to spin - it just spins!

Should any reader have or know of one or more clear photographs or drawings of any of the examples mentioned above – especially of the Killaraght, Co Sligo, stone – they would be made very welcome here. By the same token, should you be aware of any other Irish swastikas that have eluded my searches, I would be particularly delighted to hear about them.

The first part of this post’s title is taken from Gwar's song ‘Slaughterama’, from the satirical shock rock band's 1990 album Scumdogs of the Universe. But, of course, you knew that.

Cited Works:
Bourke, C. 2000 A bronze mount from Lough Eyes, County Fermanagh. Ulster Journal of Archaeology 59.

Bruce-Mitford, R. 2005 The corpus of Late Celtic hanging bowls. With an account of the bowls found in Scandinavia by Sheila Raven. Oxford.

Cuppage, J. 1986 Corca Dhuibhne. Dingle Peninsula archaeological surveyBallyferriter.

Edwards, N. 1990 The archaeology of Early Medieval Ireland. London.

Gaskell-Brown, C. & Harper, A. E. T. 1984 Excavations on Cathedral Hill, Armagh, 1968 Ulster Journal of Archaeology 47.

Lucas, A. T., Ó Ríordáin, A. B., Rynne, E. Prendergast, E. Raftery, J. & O'Kelly, M. J. 1961 National Museum of Ireland Archaeological Acquisitions in the Year 1959 Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 91.1

O'Sullivan, A. & Sheehan, J. 1996 The Iveragh Peninsula: an archaeological survey of south Kerry. Cork.

Rynne, E. 1990 'The swastika at Ennis—symbol of the Resurrection' North Munster Antiquarian Journal 32.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Musee de l'Ancien Eveche | Coin Hoard

I find that I am peculiarly drawn to hoards. It’s not just that my childhood imaginings of ‘buried treasure’ endured and survived a career as a professional archaeologist. There’s something fascinating in the way we feel we can see into those moments of deposition, clearly imagining the sequence of events from hurried deposition in advance of an immediate threat, followed by wondering why it was never recovered? Was the one who hid their valuables killed? Were they driven off and never made it back? Did they survive, only to realise that they’d hid their stuff a little too well and couldn’t find it?

All of these feelings and questions go through my mind every time I see this pottery vessel stuffed with treasure. The small-value bronze coins are all of the Late Roman Empire and date from 268 to 273. In particular, the hoard is dominated by examples from the reign of Tetricus I (271-274). The collection was discovered in 1979 in Fontanil-Cornillon, Isère. Today, this is an area on the north-western edge of Grenoble, but in the third century it would have probably been open countryside.

The museum’s information card notes that the vessel was buried some 2.5m underground – quite a substantial bit of digging to hide the family piggybank! Given the dating of the coins, the museum speculates that the hoard was deposited by its owner at the time of the first barbarian invasions, but neither they nor I can definitely state why they were not recovered for nearly 1700 years.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Musee de l'Ancien Eveche | Marble Gravestone

This remarkable little gravestone caught my eye. It was discovered in Drabuyard, Varces, to the south of Grenoble and dates to the 6th century. The upper portion is decorated with a variety of incised cross-forms (one of which bears more resemblance to a snowflake, but you can't have everything) and a little bird. If my guess is correct, the tuft on top of the bird’s head may be enough to identify it as a peacock. Although modern readers will often consider the peacock as an emblem of pride (“Proud as a peacock” and all that), the ancient Greeks believed that its flesh did not decay after death. In this way, it became a symbol of immortality and was adopted by early Christianity. Although fragmentary, the Latin inscription survives sufficiently well to be recorded and translated:


In this tomb by the mercy of Christ, rest in peace, of good memory ... "

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Musee de l'Ancien Eveche | The funerary stele of Caius Sollius Marculus

As the visitor moves through the basement level of Grenoble’s Musee de l'Ancien Eveche they will pass this rather remarkable funeral stele. It dates to the end of the second century AD and commemorates a tax collector, Caius Sollius Marculus. At this time Grenoble was known as Cularo and contained a tax office specifically for the collection of the “quarantième des Gaules”, a 2.5% levy on all goods in transit. The stele is not simply important for the light it sheds on the financial history of Gaul and the Empire, but it this is the earliest documented reference to the city name: ‘Cularo’.


‘quarantième’ is translated as ‘fortieth’, and one-fortieth is equivalent to 2.5%

The stele as photographed in 2003

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Musee de l'Ancien Eveche | The Baptistery

View of baptistery location from our Airbnb appartment
I recently had the good fortune to renew my acquaintance with France. The Chapples were up in the foothills of the Alps for a family wedding, but before we headed home we decided to spend a day in Grenoble. Once safely ensconced in Belfast, I sorted through my photos and put a selection on social media. I was really surprised at the very positive responses I got from a wide selection of friends and acquaintances, so I have attempted to put together a selection for wider distribution.

The Musee de l'Ancien Eveche (Old Bishops’ Palace Museum) is a free museum, based (as the name suggests) in Grenoble’s former Episcopal Palace. While it displays and promotes the archaeological and historical past for the whole of the Isère region, I first want to look at the significance of the site itself. In 1989, archaeological excavations ahead of the installation of the tram system uncovered the remains of an early Christian baptistery. The baptistery was first built in the late fourth century and underwent many changes and developments over its 500-year life. As I understand it, the earliest phase consisted of a large, square pool about 0.75m deep to accommodate total-immersion baptisms. When liturgical changes reduced the baptism ritual to the simple sprinkling of water, the size of the pool was reduced, though the surroundings were decorated and embellished. Today, the site of the baptistery is marked out on the street while the archaeological remains have been preserved in situ directly below. Access is via the museum’s basement and the area contains other in situ material, including large portions of the city’s Roman walls.

Every time I visit here, I’m simply stunned by this remarkable survival. If you get the opportunity to visit Grenoble, I can’t recommend this place highly enough – it’s absolutely brilliant!

Section of Roman wall discovered in excavations
I would like to make a comment here that applies to pretty much all of the following posts regarding the treasures of the Musee de l'Ancien Eveche – all of the information cards I encountered were in French with no English in sight. This is not in any way a criticism of the museum, but of my own precarious memories of my schooldays and my tenuous grasp of the French language. To write these posts, I’ve relied on what little French I can muster. This has been augmented with Google Translate and a number of online OCR services, used on images of the museum’s signage. While these technologies are impressive, they still have quite a way to go and any errors of fact are mine alone.

Central baptistery pool. Photographed in 2003
Detail of lead pipe which fed the pool. Photographed in 2003

Overview of baptismal pool 

Grenoble 2017 Table of Contents

To act as an easy way of moving between each of the Grenoble posts, I’ve put together a Table of Contents. The links will go live as each is published.

Musee de l'Ancien Eveche | The funerary stele of Gaius Papius Secundus
Musee de l'Ancien Eveche | The parakeet mosaic
Musee de l'Ancien Eveche | The Helmet of Clodomir
Musee de l'Ancien Eveche | Panels from an altarpiece
Musee de l'Ancien Eveche | Two Capitals

Find the Musee de l'Ancien Eveche | Website | Facebook

Grenoble Archaeological Museum | The Church & graveyard
Grenoble Archaeological Museum | Madonna & Child
Grenoble Archaeological Museum | Doorways
Grenoble Archaeological Museum | The Saint-Oyand crypt
Grenoble Archaeological Museum | Gravestone of Populonia
Grenoble Archaeological Museum | Romanesque Capitals
Grenoble Archaeological Museum | Carving of a Bishop
Grenoble Archaeological Museum | Iron Cross
Grenoble Archaeological Museum | Two Oil Lamps

Find the Grenoble Archaeological Museum | Website | Facebook | Twitter

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Ain't talkin', just walkin'. Carrying a dead man's shield

This decorated bronze shield was discovered in the River Shannon at Barrybeg, Co. Roscommon. When I was in university, it was taught that these beautiful shields (known as Yetholm type, after the discovery of three examples at Yetholm in southern Scotland) were ceremonial. How could they be anything else? They’re made of sheet bronze, just 0.6mm thick – a sword would cut right through that! If the inquisitive student questioned this dictum, they were quickly directed to Prof John Coles’ experiments from the 1950s. Coles had a replica shield made and then hit it with a replica sword. The result? Not good! The shield may as well have been made of tinfoil, as it was cleft in two with a single stroke. I have vague recollections of attending an Experimental Archaeology conference many years ago where Prof Coles spoke about his work.* While my memories of the gathering as a whole are somewhat hazy, I still clearly recollect the sound of the sharp intake of breath that ran through the room as Prof Coles described how he nearly clove a colleague in the name of science. I’ve told this story many times before, all with the tone of ‘well, that settles the argument.’

Fast forward to a little while ago when I shared the above image on social media. I was asked a couple of questions about it and the type generally. As I couldn’t remember some key facts (including the correct spelling of ‘Yetholm’ … I had a notion that it contained an extra ‘n’), I sought out the Wikipedia entry. While it shouldn’t have come as a huge surprise that scholarship had moved on in … you know … the last 25 years … I was rather taken aback that this particular cherished touchstone had come under scrutiny and revision. Recent work by Barry Molloy notes that Cole’s replica shield was only 0.3mm thick – two to three times thinner than the average shield of this type. Wikipedia also notes that Coles’ replica shield was made of hardened copper, substantially softer than the bronze of the original shields.  Molloy’s experiments suggests that while the thinnest shields may not have been effective in combat situations, the more robust examples would have functioned well. Not only were they effective, he notes that the three metal examples created for experimentation were ‘in most regards’ superior to their leather counterparts.

Molloy also notes a detail that had escaped me. The damage to the Barrybeg shield (above and to the right of the central boss in my image) may have been inflicted by a spear thrust. In his experiments, he observed that penetration by spear could happen, but mentions that in no instance did the spearhead penetrate far enough to pose a threat to the shield bearer. The Barrybeg shield also has some damage to its rolled edge that appears to have been inflicted by a sword. Experiment has shown that rolling the edge in this manner gave a broader area of contact that dented rather than allowing the sword to cut into the shield. In particular, the Barrybeg shield’s rolled edge incorporates a thick wire, further strengthening and supporting the edge.

I was initially attracted to the piece for the quality of its craftsmanship and the beauty of its design. In contemplating the shield, I was drawn to the hand grip – particularly visible as the central boss is now missing. There seemed to be something very human and evocative about that strip of metal meant to fit the hand of a long gone warrior. Whether it was carried with pride as part of a ceremonial occasion or gripped with grim determination against an oncoming enemy, a human hand held it there. These shields are dated to 1200-800 BC and their owners are long gone. Knowing a little more about the manufacture of the piece, how it was used, and the damage it suffered only brings the human element into sharper focus for me. Go see it for yourself and think past it as a piece of beautiful metal to the people who stood behind it …

* Long story. Don’t ask.

The Barrybeg shield is on loan from the National Museum of Ireland to the Ulster Museum. The Ulster Museum is open Tuesdays to Sundays & is free! Go explore!

You can read a good introduction to the Yetholm shield type on Wikipedia, where I got much of the general substance of this post [here]

You can also read Barry Molloy’s excellent paper: ‘For Gods or men? A reappraisal of the function of European Bronze Age shields’ is available on his page where I got much of the rest of the detail for this post [here]

The title is taken from Bob Dylan’s song Ain't talkin', from his 2006 album Modern Times. But, of course, you knew that.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

‘Marrow mash’: the possible medicinal use of cattle bone marrow in Early Historic Ireland

Celtic Caludron by lemonade8 on Used with kind permission
I’m never quite sure how universal my experience of academic life really is (or was). For me, at least, I finished a Master’s degree in archaeology with lots of good intentions to get down to business and convert individual chapters into publishable papers. I didn’t do too badly – I got a few decent publications of core ideas out to the wider world. On the other hand – and this is where I’ve no idea whether I’m alone or part of a larger group – there were a few ideas that I had wanted to write up, but never got around to it. Perhaps the world doesn’t need to know my theory that the modern road system in west Clare dates to the Early Christian period*.

As some readers may be aware, my computer recently suffered a catastrophic hard drive failure. Although no data was lost, I’ve had to spend time going through various files and considering if I really need certain stuff on my new machine, or if it can’t be safely consigned to the archives. Seriously, if you’ve got a folder called ‘In Progress’ that hasn’t been touched in half a decade, it’s time to reconsider your priorities.

In going through this process, I found an outline draft of an article that I had almost completely forgotten about. It falls in this category of ‘peripheral ideas I had when writing my Masters’ and the sad reality is that I’m never going to get around to finishing it. The reasons for this are simple – for my Master’s I read a lot of the surviving corpus of Early Irish Law and other literature (albeit in translation). In the two decades since, I’ve not really maintained my interest and what little I knew then, I’ve largely forgotten. The other reality is that to pursue the research fully, I would require proficiency in such areas as biology and chemistry that I have never possessed and am unlikely to develop any time soon.

So, rather than allow it to go to digital decomposition, sitting in splendid isolation on my hard drive, I’ve decided to share what I have in the hope that someone with more energy and ability might find it a topic worthy of further thought and research.

My idea is pretty simple – when we find split cattle bones on archaeological sites (e.g. Ballinderry Crannog no. 1 (Hencken 1937)), the general consensus is that they were broken to extract the marrow (smir) for human consumption. I don’t disagree with this (bone marrow is a good source of nutrition), but I wonder if this was the totality of the marrow usage. Perhaps bone marrow could have been used for its medicinal qualities too.

Where bones are recovered from archaeological sites, it may be surmised that they were deliberately broken open to extract the marrow. As Roche & Stelfox (1937, 231) note of the Ballinderry material: ‘The characteristic appearance of these broken bones is always the same. The centre portion of the shaft of the bone is always shattered but the ends of the bones are perfect, unless split by a subsequent operation’. While the extraction of marrow can be identified, the uses to which it was put cannot be so easily recognised. Therefore, we must turn to the rather wonderful, if somewhat disparate, collection of early Irish literature in the hope of getting some insight into what bone marrow could have been used for.

Although there are no known references to the consumption of bone marrow in the surviving corpus of early law, marrow is included among the list of food items in the 12th century satire Aislinge Meic Con Glinne:

‘Then in the harbour of the lake before me I saw a juicy little coracle of beef-fat, with its coating of tallow, with its thwarts of curds, with its prow of lard, with its stern of butter, with its thole-pins of marrow, with its oars of flitches of old boar in it.’ (Meyer 1892, 85.12; Jackson 1990, 33.1022)

Despite the comic vision context of the tale the underlying implication is that marrow was among the common foodstuffs of the period. (Pers. Comm. Fergus Kelly). In fact, this is the only surviving reference in the early literature to bone marrow being used as  a food.

There is, effectively, only one other reference to bone marrow in the early literature, and it's from the Táin Bó Cúailnge. The version of this text from the Book of Leinster has been translated thus:

‘So then Fíngin Fáithlíaig asked Cú Chulainn for a marrow-mash to cure and heal Cethern mac Fintain. Cú Chulainn proceeded to the encampment of the men of Ireland and brought from there all he found of their herds and flocks and droves, and made from them a mash, flesh and bones and hides all together. And Cethern was placed in the marrow-mash for the space of three days and three nights, and he began to soak up the marrow-mash which was about him. And the marrow entered into his wounds and gashes, his sores and many stabs.’ (O’Rahilly 1967, 105.3780-5)

Such a passage seems so filled with literary over-statement and exaggeration as to be of little value to the student of early historic society. However, the Recension I version of this passage is much less prosaic and appears to encapsulate the central premise that bovine marrow, when applied as a poultice had the ability to heal wounds:

‘Then Cú Chulainn asked for marrow for the physician to cure Cethern. He made a marrow-mash from the bones of the cattle he encountered. Hence the name Smirommair in Crích Rois.’ (O’Rahilly 1976, 100.3299-3300)

While such legendary tales and the feats of heroic warriors are undoubtedly fantastic, the question remains: are these the result of pure literary imagination, or do they possess within them a central kernel of veracity? Kelly (1997, 53) notes this use of marrow mash (smirchomairt or smirammair) in the Táin, but states his uncertainty as to whether this was merely a literary invention or evidence for a genuine medical treatment.

The Dying Gaul (By I, Jean-Christophe BENOIST, CC BY 2.5)

My point is that if we’re willing to accept the literary evidence for eating bone marrow from a single 12th century satire, then we should at least give some consideration to its use in early medicine based on its appearance in the Táin. Admittedly, the idea of eating bone marrow has the advantage of being well documented in many cultures up to the present day. According to the website, cattle bone marrow contains 126 calories and 7g of fat per 0.5oz (1 tablespoon) serving. The same source indicates that a 3oz serving of lean beef contains 180 calories and 9g of fat. To recalibrate this to make it clearer – a 0.5oz serving of lean beef would have 90 calories and 1.5g of fat, versus the 126 calories and 7g of fat offered by the same sized serving of marrow. We can be clear that bone marrow is a rich source of energy and would have been highly prized in the prehistoric and early historic periods.

To effectively make the case that bone marrow could also have been used for healing and medication, we certainly need more evidence – and that’s where I’ve rather run aground. Failing the sudden appearance of a newly discovered early Irish manuscript that clearly states: ‘we used bone marrow for medicine, no, really!’ we, to my mind, need two strands of evidence. The first of these would be to document the medicinal use of bone marrow in other cultures. Outside of Ireland, I’ve been able to find reference to the use of bone marrow to treat coughing (seryt) by the ancient Egyptians (Numm 1996, 161). It’s fine, but it would be better to have more of this type of evidence. While being able to point to other times and cultures to say: ‘these all used bone marrow in a medicinal context’ would be lovely, it would not of itself be evidence that this was the case in early medieval Ireland.

What would be better – though still not conclusive – would be to have evidence of the healing properties of bone marrow. And this is where I've really run aground … I just have no idea as to how one would go about such a course of research. Even leaving aside the question of whether there would have been differences in the bone marrow of different breeds of cattle, I’m not entirely sure what we should look for or how we could go about it. Could there be antiseptic qualities in bone marrow? Perhaps it could aid in coagulation or in some other way that would speed up the healing process. In researching around this topic (read: Googling aimlessly) I’ve seen many websites that claim bone marrow as a rich source of collagen, but I have been unable to find any quantifiable data on this. The role of collagen in wound healing process appears to be well understood [here & here] and collagen wound dressings are popular. Could the collagen-rich bone marrow have been effective in speeding up healing? Could this seemingly exaggerated reference in our heroic literature actually preserve some knowledge of ancient medical practices? Perhaps there are further components of bone marrow that could aid healing, of which I am unaware.

I suppose that this is my point here – if this draft sits on my computer, unlooked at and unresearched, I’ll always remain unaware. It will languish there lost and forlorn and none of us will be any the wiser. That’s why I’ve taken the decision to turn what I have loose and set if free, in the hope of attracting the attention of someone with better science knowledge and an interest in pursuing the topic in ways I am just not able. Even after nearly 20 years, I maintain that this is an interesting question that deserves to be investigated further. Anyone willing to have a go?

Works cited

Hencken, H. O’N. 1937 ‘Ballinderry crannog No. 1.’ PRIA c 43, 103 - 240.

Jackson, K. H. 1990 Aislinge Meic Con Glinne. School of Celtic studies, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, Dublin.

Kelly, F. 1997 Early Irish farming: a study based mainly on the law texts of the 7th and 8th centuries AD. School of Celtic studies, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, Dublin.

Meyer, K. (ed.) 1892 Aislinge Meic Conglinne: the vision of MacConglinne. D. Nutt, London.

Nunn, J. F. 1996 Ancient Egyptian Medicine. London.

O’Rahilly, C. (ed.) 1967 Táin Bó Cúalnge from the Book of Leinster. Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, Dublin.

O’Rahilly, C. (ed.) 1976 Táin Bó Cúailnge: Recension I. Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, Dublin.

Roche, G. & Stelfox, A. W. 1937 ‘Appendix II: the animal bones from Ballinderry crannog No. I’ in Hencken, H. O’N. ‘Ballinderry crannog No. 1.’ PRIA c 43, 103 - 240.


* It totally does! I don’t have any excavated evidence or actual dates, but if you draw lines between the high-status ringforts (and go around the boggy area known as “the place of wolves”), you pretty much have today’s road network. See Chapter 7 [here].