Saturday, 18 February 2017

Ogham II: Ogham Strikes Back

A little while ago, I happened to get involved with the creation of a sinister Lovecraftian artefact.

I had a few candidate stones gathered at the same time, and Shannon carelessly left a comment which includes the words "Man, I want one now. :)"

Well, I'd already got the Ogham and the design pretty much down. I didn't have any inspiration for a particularly different carving, so I stuck with the original. I vaguely like the idea of doing some others at some point though. I actually did this project last summer, but with one thing and many others, I haven't got round to writing it up before.

As you can see, I felt this artefact really called for a suspicious dark organic stain. Well, that's easy enough.

I actually used a hyper-strong solution of coffee for this. I dissolved a full spoon of coffee powder in a small amount of water, and carefully dripped the resulting fluid onto the artefact.

Note to self: "carefully dripped the resulting fluid onto the artefact" is ideal material for sinister handouts

The staining was applied in dozens of individual doses, left to dry in the summer sun inbetweentimes. It slowly built up into something that's at least vaguely reminiscent of ichorous stainings over decades of sacrifice, I like to think. Although it does still smell faintly of coffee. I also carefully dripped tiny amounts into the rivulets of the carving, which firstly looked authentic, and secondly helps them stand out starkly against the stone.

The odd shape of this stone made it a more challenging carve. The Ogham is oddly broken up.


Of course, having composed two scruffy letters for the first carving, I could hardly let Shannon down with the second, now could I?

I thought it over for a while, and decided to just go with it being something she purchased from an eBay seller. Which of course needed an origin story. And some historical ephemera. And she was doing a certain campaign at the time, and why not after all take the time to offer a mysterious tie-in to a certain NPC...

Okay, I may have gone slightly over the top this time.

The backstory

So to begin with, obviously I needed a fictitious eBay page. Luckily this is relatively easy.

I say relatively easy; it's one of those things where I've completely lost the ability to judge that. I mean, I just saved a local copy of a plausible-looking eBay page to my local computer, then used the element editing menu on the browser to change individual sections without having to plough through the database-based code (straight-up HTML is so much easier to reskin). I have no idea where that actually falls on the mean or median scales of easiness.

I enclosed a PDF copy of the eBay page with my message, since sending people whole webpages is hard.

Then I composed a message from the seller, which was supposed to be straightforward, and naturally grew increasingly intricate as I went along. Naturally, I edited this in my email program to actually be from collectorkeith, and sent this email to Shannon for her own use if desired.

Dear Shannon,

thanks for your purchase of the Celtic engraving. I'll ship it over as soon as possible; it should take 5-7 working days to arrive.

Just to confirm, the package includes the artefact itself, plus its original label from Dr Richardson's collection, and two letters that have been associated with it for nearly 100 years.

This is a really interesting piece and honestly one of my favourite curiosities. It was found buried in fenland in the 1850s near Norfolk - unfortunately I was never able to find records of the exact date. It was referred to in a couple of minor journals (Norfolk Anthropology mostly, but also Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie) in the late C19th and early C20th, as mentioned in one of the enclosed letters. The researchers seem to have lost interest around 1913 when Beidecker (ZfcP) published arguments that the markings are simply ornamental rather than fragments of Pictish. It's a reasonably convincing case but I still wonder!

I was interested to see you purchase it as this piece has actually been to Australia before! It seems the piece was purchased in the late 1920s (I can't quite make out the date) when the collection was being sold off after Richardson's murder, and shipped to an antiquarian named Jackson Elias who was staying in Australia at the time. I believe this may have been an American anthropologist of that name who published some articles on lesser-known religions and folk practices, but it's not really my area.

The two enclosed letters date from that occasion, and include some intriguing biographical notes. It made me curious what sort of trouble Elias had been getting himself into. Knowing archaeology of the time I wonder whether he'd been involved in some less-than-legal excavations and removal of antiquities, which some countries were starting to crack down on.

The piece and its letters found their way back to London sometime after the second world war. According to my notes, it was retrieved from a cache of stolen goods in 1952, and its owner at the time, a Mr Neil Wharfdale, ended up in a mental institution suffering from severe paranoia following a series of unexplained burglary and assault attempts. It ended up in an auction run by the House of Ausberg in the 1970s where they were purchased by Professor Giles Moreton of Lincoln as part of a substantial lot. He didn't have much interest in Celtic material (I believe most of the lot was Egyptian) and I bought them in 1997.

Unfortunately I've had no more luck in deciphering the mystery than the old archaeologists did. The Celtic scholars I consulted agreed that it is an authentic C1-5th piece, but one suggestion is that it's actually a non-Celtic copy (possibly Romano-British or just plain Roman) made as a curiosity or just for practice by someone without a grasp of Ogham. It could even be an example of Ogham used to transcribe another language, although I couldn't make sense of it in Latin either. Perhaps the carver used a different transliteration?

The staining doesn't appear to be blood, which was the obvious (and more romantic) thought. I suspect it's some kind of oil, possibly an oily resin or perfume used in a burial, although if it's a ritual piece it could be from the ceremony. Or, of course, it could simply be that oil has leaked into the ground where it was buried - much less satisfying but perhaps more likely.

I hope you find it as intriguing as I did, and if you do learn any more about it, I'd be fascinated to hear from you.

Best wishes, Keith

The label

Letter to Jackson Elias

The 'typed' letter - worth reading as it has Edie's annotations as well as the text below!

Adelaide, Australia

Tuesday 15th 192~

My dear Elias,

I ran across the enclosed at a pretty dull auction of a country house in the quaint little town where I've been staying. Some ancestor had a collecting mania but frankly the rest was tedious books, pots, arrowheads and stuffed birds. I thought this repulsive little enigma might tickle your fancy. The little charms were long sold by the time I arrived, alas.

Tiresomely they refused to give me the collector's catalogue, so you will be delighted to see that I have lovingly transcribed their entries for you and now type it up for your delectation. I hope I have it right, but peculiar dead languages are rather more your area than mine, dear boy.

As you predicted, a foreigner of some sort has been loitering in the neighbourhood where you were staying. I had Norris approach him (with the utmost discretion, I do assure you) and with a little tact elicited the information that he was on the lookout for 'an old friend' with a predictable resemblance to your good self. I do trust you have not been agitating?

Norris was, with his usual skill, able to convey the impression that he might be willing to assist in this matter, and report that the foreigner showed a disposition to accept the offer. Tell me how you'd like to proceed, and don't go out without your revolver.

I ordered the books you requested from Blackwell's, and will send them on to your hotel. It will cost a pretty penny but if you say air mail, so it is. In the circumstances I say you ought to keep them well out of sight; I believe the staff at Blackwell's are beginning to look askance at me. I did call at the Bodleian, but even they drew a blank at this 'Sand Bat' of yours. I suppose the Antipodes aren't exactly their focus.

Yours and all that jazz,


The catalogue record

These copies of the catalogue are also annotated by a grumpy Edie

Carved stone of Celtic design found in bogs near Norwich. Originally buried in a bark container, which also held eight charms or amulets (holdings R-83N/hap1 to R-83N/hap8). Appears to depict a bearded figure, originally identified as the Dagda, but questionable due to lack of the distinctive club. Possibly a tribal chieftain or priest. Gordon (1896, Norfolk Archaeology) suggested the 'beard' is a symbolic representation of breath or speech, and the projections to the left are a harp, making this a bardic figure or possibly Áillen.

Carved with 36 ogham glyphs around perimeter. Left perimeter damaged at some point and the glyphs crudely repaired, leaving bifurcating set of glyphs. Lower part of stone and parts of carving stained with dark substance.

Transcription below from Winstable (1857).

Fngluimglupnazctulurle q u g ahnaglzta g n g

Inability to identify clear Old Irish words led Kleinhoff (1903) to suggest a druidic code and Rhys (1906) to argue for a Pictish origin.

Billings (1911) suggests an abbreviated or shorthand message to fit the available space, and identifies possible Primitive Irish words within the passage:


finn-gl[as/an/é] ... ma[c/g] lu[gh] [b]námae c[a]thu rí ... leth-... ná-glé-se [do]gní

great brightness ... mac? lug was.enemy battle king ... half... not-bright.emph he-make

Finn-Glé (name)... Son of Lugh the Enemy? [perished in] battle with the King... half... no longer bright (emphasised; a play on death and his name?)... he did.


finn-gl[as/an/é] ... im-gal[af] .... c[a]thu rí lé[g]- guth-gáeth...

great brightness ... was-valorous ... battle king with/reads voice-wind

Finn... showed courage... the king (with/who could read) voice of the wind (epithet for a chieftain?)...

Billings argues that, like most early Ogham stones, this was a grave marker or tribute, and is simply a more compact form of language used due to the limited space. A similar phenomenon is common in Latin engravings.

This is another one of those areas where I had a lot of fun. Well, frustration and fun. Coming up with plausibly bad interpretions of the Ogham, without spending as much time on it as the actual fictional Celticists would over the years, and without actually learning Old Irish (I'm fine with just the modern Celtic languages, thanks) was a tricky one.

No comments:

Post a Comment