3D technology to shed new light on ancient Celtic writing system

Its alphabet represents a written language ancestral to Scottish Gaelic, modern Irish, and Manx.

A team of academics are using 3D digital technology to record all surviving examples of Ogham script – an ancient Celtic alphabet – to transform our understanding of its significance.

The earliest-known inscriptions in Ogham date to around the 4th century AD. Its alphabet represents a written language system ancestral to Scottish Gaelic, modern Irish, and Manx, and appears on ancient and early medieval stone monuments and portable artefacts.

Although the majority of these examples were produced in the Republic of Ireland, one-third are found across England, Wales, Scotland, and the Isle of Man.

COPYRIGHT, 2009 Digital scanning of Ogham stone, Lugnagappul, Co. Kerry (Image: Nora White, with permission).

A handful of Ogham-inscribed stone pillars are housed in national museums. But for the most part they reside in local churches, heritage centres, or at their original location – typically remote, rural sites that are exposed to the elements.

The use of Ogham persisted long after Latin was established as the dominant script. Researchers discovered an Irish manuscript composed as recently as 1849, that contains medical charms written entirely in Ogham.

Professor Katherine Forsyth, professor of Celtic studies at Glasgow University, said: ‘Everyone’s heard of runes, but not so many people are familiar with Ogham, a highly unusual and amazingly clever writing system unique to these islands.’

As part of a three-year project led by the University of Glasgow and Maynooth University, with funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Irish Research Council, a team of academics are set to digitally record all 640 examples of Ogham script dated before 1950.

They will also work alongside Ireland’s Discovery Programme to create 3D models of the monumental inscriptions, which will offer insight into the effects of weathering and enable discussions concerning conservation methods.

The information will be made available in an online database, designed to make the script accessible to both a scholarly and a non-specialist audience.

The research builds upon the Ogham in 3D project, carried out by the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies between 2012 and 2015. This focused primarily on recording Ogham stone pillars in state care in the Republic of Ireland.

The project is in collaboration with the National Museums of Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, the British Museum, the National Library of Scotland, Manx National Heritage, Ireland’s National Monuments Service, Historic Environment Scotland, and Wales’s Cadw.