Oldest ink pen found in Ireland

Its discovery is significant because while there is archaeological evidence for secular literacy in the Roman and early medieval periods in Britain, this is not really the case in Ireland

Excavations at Caherconnell Cashel, a ringfort in the Burren region of County Clare in Ireland, have uncovered the earliest-known Irish example of an ink pen. The dip pen (below) was discovered in an 11th-century layer, during investigations led by Dr Michelle Comber of NUI Galway and the Caherconnell Archaeology Field School, and it raises questions about secular literacy and textual production in Ireland in the early medieval period.

Image: Michelle Comber.

Caherconnell Cashel – a dry-stone ringfort enclosing a number of free-standing internal structures bounded by a circular wall – was built as a high-status enclosure in the late 10th century, ‘possibly by an imposed ruler in the area,’ Michelle told CA. ‘In early medieval Ireland, the island was divided into five provinces, and each had a provincial king – but then there were lots of different grades of kings and lords beneath him.’

The ringfort would have made quite the political statement in its day, Michelle said: at 42m in diameter, it is twice the size of its neighbours. These structures, of which there are at least 45,000 recorded examples across Ireland, including over 500 in this region alone, are divided into cashels (made of stone) and raths (made of earth), Michelle explained. They are unique to early medieval Ireland, where there were no native nucleated urban settlements, and were essentially ‘enclosed farmsteads’, home to individual families. Many fell out of use or were destroyed/altered after the 12th-century Anglo-Norman invasion, but Caherconnell Cashel (and perhaps a few other sites that are only just emerging) continued to be occupied into later centuries (into the 17th century at Caherconnell), proving that native traditions persisted in medieval Ireland, particularly in some western, Gaelic-controlled areas, Michelle said.

As for the pen, which would have been dipped into a pot of ink, it is made from a piece of hollow bone (possibly from a bird), with a copper-alloy nib inserted at one end. Its discovery is significant because while there is archaeological evidence for secular literacy in the Roman and early medieval periods in Britain, this is not really the case in Ireland (although carved ogham inscriptions may have had secular and/or religious associations), Michelle explained. ‘Any archaeological evidence we have is generally associated with the monasteries,’ she said.

In order to confirm the object’s identity, Adam Parsons of Blueaxe Reproductions created a replica. ‘A metal-nibbed pen from such an early date is still hard to credit’, said expert calligrapher and historian Tim O’Neill. ‘But the fact that it functions with ink is there to see. It would have worked well for ruling straight lines to form, for instance, a frame for a page.’

Michelle noted that some early medieval high-status families are known to have sent their sons to be educated in local monasteries, where they would have become at least semi-literate, probably in both Latin and Irish. The pen is ‘the first physical evidence of it, but, perhaps, when you look at it closely, not too surprising,’ she said. ‘Not all the documents that survive from early medieval Ireland are religious in nature. It was presumed that even the non-religious texts were produced at monasteries by monastic scribes, but perhaps that wasn’t always the case.’

Suggesting that the Caherconnell pen may have been used to write administrative documents, family genealogies, or even secular poetry, she added: ‘One of the biggest drawbacks is that the surviving documents from the period are associated with the Church, and that association is why they survive. I imagine that high-status families had these kinds of records, but that none have survived from secular sites.’

For more information, see www.caherconnell.com/archaeology.