September 2, 2008


I have just watched the most exciting TV programme. No, there were no explosions. It was Time Team - the British archaeology show of Tony Robinson fame - and they were digging up a medieval chapel on the Isle of Man.

Images originally from the Channel 4 Time Team website. Photos © Neil Emmanuel and illustration Victor Ambrus

They found some amazing things. A slab of stone with an inscription on it, looking like turkey-scratched bundles of sticks, in a form of writing called Ogham, an Irish script. And many graves, and even - perhaps best of all, a bundle of preserved hair, still rich dark brown, still in its braid - 1600 years after the woman was buried. I'm speechless. And I understand why one of the diggers gently murmured "Come on, sweetheart", as she carefully lifted one of the 1000-year old skeletons out of a grave. I would, too.

Victor Ambrus's sketch of the female burial in which a plait of hair was preserved.

I love words, and we live and work in a world where there's information flowing in every which direction, once written by someone, now on advertising, TV, newspapers, radio, you name it.

But the handful of words on the Ogham Stone are so inspiring and exciting because they come from a time that's mute to people like me. We're amateur, interested people: we read a few books but perhaps it takes a trained archaeologist to read the remains and the land. I certainly need their interpretation to get much meaning out of ancient objects in museums, but words - ah, that's something I recognise, even if I can't read them.

Who wrote that inscription? What did it feel like? What impelled them to make those cuts in the rock? How unusual, sacred perhaps, was the ability to read? Was that person a priest? A warrior-leader or king? How long did it take to carve? Was there more? Who was supposed to read it (especially if few people could read)? What tools did they use? Where did they learn to write, and from whom?

We don't know for sure what it says, but this is what the Time Team website says about it:

"As for what the inscription refers to, we can only speculate. Ogham experts identified it as 11th-century Gaelic and translated references to 'corner', '50' and 'group', 'gang', 'throng' or possibly 'throng of warriors'. Anything more specific than that has to be left to the imagination."

The programme infers that this inscription might have something to do with the founding of the Viking community on the Isle of Man, when they were colonising Ireland and the islands of Western Scotland. A pretty key moment in colonisation.

This kind of archaeological find has the power to blow like a blast of cold northern sea wind through me.

Imagination. Curiosity. A crafting interest. Art history.

Spending so much time making things and looking at crafts that others have made, I look at items in archaeological digs and I wonder about the people who made them. Or who used and appreciated them.

These are the craft - or in this case, the words - belonging to dead people, long-gone cultures and beliefs. It's as if they reached out and quietly tugged on your sleeve. Someone wrote this. (Someone was alive.) Someone knew that readers might see it. (Other readers who were alive, also now gone.) What did they want them to think? (Glory, memory, ancestor right?) Someone lived, died, was buried here, in full state. (Who was she?)

Archaeology makes me remember that crafts and making things are not just about the skill, the artistry or creative arrangement and the great new designs we love and pass around.

Crafts are about the fact that we are social creatures who want to share ideas and show off our products - just like these people would have done, in their own, different way. Just like we do, online and in our crafting communities. They're about memory, belonging, the past and the future. They're all about who we are.

Bloody good reading online:

No comments: