Thesaurus Indogermanischer Text- und Sprachmaterialien

Ogam-Inschriften: Einleitung

Ogham Inscriptions: Introduction

2nd edition: May 1997

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The present internet edition of the ogham inscriptions aims at publishing the results of preparatory work that has been undertaken during a period of about 20 years now. It should by no means be regarded as definite. One of the great advantages of an electronic edition consists in the fact that its contents can steadily be extended, corrected, and improved; and the time has come to profit from this advantage in scholarly publications too. For the present edition, this means that it will be regularly completed and updated (the actual edition is the second, the first one having been available from March 1996 to April 1997).

Another advantage of an electronic publication lies in the fact that it can amply be supported by graphic materials such as drawings, photographs, and even videos. It goes without saying that the availability of illustrations is of utmost importance for of all kinds of epigraphical studies. This is especially true for the epigraphy of ogham monuments, a field that has for all to long been influenced, if not dominated, by fancy and mysticism rather than scholarly sobriety and meticulousness.

When I started my investigations about the ogham inscriptions in 1978, I could not expect, of course, that computers would turn out an essential means of my studies. In fact I had no idea at all of how to use them at that time, and the only instruments I needed were a photo camera, pencils and paper. My aims were restricted at that time also: What I intended to take home from my first field trips to Ireland (1978) and Scotland (1979) was mostly materials for documenting some inscriptions that might be helpful for the academic teaching of the history of the Irish language. But working more thoroughly with the existing editions, esp. with R.A.S Macalister's Corpus Inscriptionum Insularum Celticarum 1, I was soon convinced that a new edition of the inscriptions was an urgent task, all the more since the state of preservation was very bad with many of them. I am glad that for the present edition, most of the photographic materials collected during these field trips can still be used. The same holds true for the lots of colour slides that were provided by several members of a group of students who accompanied me on my second visit to Ireland in 1981; I wish to seize this opportunity to express my gratitude to them once again2.

A first report of what developed itself into the project of a new edition of the ogham inscriptions was delivered on the conference on "Britain 400 to 600" which took place in Eichsttt in 1988. By that time I had worked out the general outline of the new edition I intended to complete, and I was glad to be able to publish it under the name of "Prliminarien" in the conference proceedings3. For easy convenience, the aims as established then may be summarized here briefly. They comprise:

a) a recollection of all information available for the history of the inscribed monuments;

b) a recollection of readings as published by former investigators;

c) a recollection of older graphic representations (photographs, sketches etc.) of the monuments;

d) a documentation of the present state of the monuments, supplied by coloured photographs;

e) a re-reading of the inscriptions;

f) an investigation into the relationship between linguistic and palaeographic features; and

g) a verification of the readings with due consideration of linguistic, philological and historical data4.

By that time, computers had become a means of my work. As early as 1986, I had started to transfer the all kinds of verbal data related to the single monuments (readings, bibliography, historical data etc.) into a data base which was adaptable to this purpose. The DBase-style DOS program I could use for this was developed by K. Boekels (Berlin / Bamberg). It was first published under the name of "Data Manager"; now it is named "Polydat" (the actual version number is 5.0.). The program is available as freeware via the internet.

One problem that was not easy to solve in those days was the application of special fonts as necessary for a one-to-one rendering of ogham characters both on the screen and on a printer. Using the EGA/VGA standard of DOS computers, this could only be done on the basis of the small dot matrix characteristic for these graphic interfaces. For ogham, this had a special effect in that some of the characters of the ogham beitheluisnin, especially the ones having four of five strokes, would not fit into a matrix of 8 x 14 or 16 dots 5). To overcome this problem, the wider characters had to be split into two elements which made them a little bit awkward to use. Of course, the font had to comprise some additional "special characters" for displaying Celtic language materials too.

For the printing, an equivalent font had to be generated. Although the matrices of both 24 pin dot matrix printers and laser jets as available at that time was not as limited as the EGA/VGA graphics card, the ogham characters had to be arranged in a similar way, thus allowing for a one-to-one print out. The article dealing about the preliminaries of the edition was printed using these fonts. It is for the reason of compatibility with the data collected so far that even a scalable vectorized font to be used on today's graphic-based computers was styled according to this principle. This DOS-based font was further arranged in several formats (Truetype, Postscript) to meet the requirements of different operating systems. Although it would be possible to convert the data into any encoding scheme, I do not see any reason to do so as long as there is no international standard for electronic storage and exchange of data written in ogham6. A special edition of the font designed to work with internet browsers is available from this server. It has been arranged as one "font family" together with a Greek font, a Cyrillic font and a font containing additional diacritic combinations so that a maximum of different scripts can be displayed at a time.

I entered a second level of data management when by 1986 I started storing the graphical data I had collected in electronic form. Of course, it was not possible at that time to use a digital camera. Instead, it was necessary to use optical scanners in order to digitize the available photographs. It has turned out that this method of digitizing cannot be dispensed with still today: Although the quality of electronic images to be produced by digital cameras is steadily increasing, the results that can be achieved like this are still inferior compared with digitized colour slides.

In the course of the project, several scanners have been applied to the digitization of photographs, trying to keep in line with the development of the technical capabilities, and in accordance with increasing standards, it became desirable more than once to repeat the scanning in order to enhance the quality of the digital images. The choice was of the scanners that could be used was mostly dictated by prices (the project has never been funded). First, a black-and-white flat bed scanner with a resolution of 300 dots per inch was available which gave acceptable results when 9 x 11 cm paper print photographs were to be reproduced on a laser printer as text illustrations (the photographs accompanying the article about the "preliminaries" were produced in this way). The next step consisted in adapting a high-resolution colour scanner for digitizing coloured photo prints. Lastly I have been using a special scanner equipment for immediate digitizing of 24 x 36 mm colour slides. Due to the fact that these images are extremely small, the resolution must be much higher than the one of flat bed scanners; depending on the purpose to be achieved, a resolution of up to 2500 dots per inch may be necessary7. According to my experiences, high resolutional scanning from colour slides yields best results indeed if compared with the other methods described. By the way, colour slide scanners can also be used for scanning the negatives of paper print pictures; this too may give better results than scanning a printed photograph.

One major advantage of digitized images resides in their availability for all kinds of electronic editing, and it is because of this advantage that digitizing is likely to develop into a principle method of epigraphic work in general. Epigraphists in older times often contented of presenting their objects in rough sketches, either drawn from the original or from rubbings, squeezes, or even casts, thus adding a large amount of subjectiveness to what they intended to show. As against this, photographs are a much better means generally for representing the optical impression of an original monument. It depends on the monuments' actual state though what information a photograph can comprise. This is especially true in the case of the ogham monuments which are mostly not preserved in museums but have been left standing in the country side, being exposed to all kinds of weather factors, damaging by cattle, and plants covering them. Besides we have to consider that ogham writing itself, being arranged on the edges of the monuments, is extremely vulnerable and hard to conceive. Under these conditions, photographs often cannot reveal the inscriptions sufficiently as they are. Here, digitizing and electronic editing can help a lot: Having the steadily developing facilities of graphical software at hand8, we can easily improve the optical appearance of a given photograph be enhancing its contrast, saturation, luminance and so on, without depending on different methods of (automatic) film developing. Furthermore, we can extend its informational content by manually adding hints for the "reader", e.g. by re-drawing the strokes that constitute the ogham characters in contrast with the so-called "stem-line" and by filtering the graphical image thus received in order to yield a maximum contrast between the inscription and its background. This of course is a subjective method again; but having both the original photograph and the edited one side by side, the reader can much more easily distinguish between the proper details of the monument and an editor's guesses than by judging from sketches or drafts.

Some figures may suffice to demonstrate what can be aimed at by editing digitized photographs with a view to supporting an edition. The monuments in question are both to be found in Ireland: The first one, no. 54 in Macalister's Corpus, is now preserved in the church of Killaloe, Co. Clare; originally the part of a high cross, it is the only "bilingual" monument known, containing a blessing written in late Medieval ogham beside a runic inscription which denotes one viking named URKRIM who had the cross erected9:

(no. 54 - runic inscription:)

[]urkrim risti || [k]rus ina

`orgrim engraved || this cross.'


(no. 54 - oghamic inscription:)


`(A) blessing [upon] || orgrim.'

(Macalister: BENDACHT [AR] TOROQR[IM])

The second example, no. 104 in the Corpus, stands in the ruined churchyard of Aghabullogue, Co. Cork. It attracts attention by the stone attached to its top10. The readings that can be established in accordance with the photographs are as given below; contrasting them with the interpretations published in Macalister's CIIC, we can easily see why many of the latter cannot be regarded as reliable11:

(no. 104:)


`[Inscription in the name of] Corr son of *Fedelmid'13


In order to give keep as close to the original as possible and to mark all degrees of subjectiveness in the proposed readings as clearly as possible, the ogham inscriptions are rendered in the present edition in a at least three different ways. One is a romanized transcription where every ogham "character" is represented by its Latin equivalent according to the traditional listing. In a second rendering, the sequence of ogham "characters" is reproduced using as such. This rendering may help, e.g., to realize the inherent reasons that are responsible for misspellings and misreadings. A third rendering gives the sequence of the single items of the ogham "characters" (i.e., strokes and notches). This rendering - which may seem a bit awkward at first glance - is intended to clearly depict what parts of "characters" are really present on the stone, where there are gaps or damages, and to what extent the grouping of strokes or notches yielding a "character" is justified. Elements that are damaged but still readable are marked by parentheses, elements that can only be guessed are marked by square brackets. A restitutional interpretation of the complete inscription is added wherever this seems helpful.

For the last mentioned inscription, we arrive at the following transcription like this:

Actual reading:

Latin Transcription: ]C[ ]RREA M(A)Q(V)[ ]D(D)[ ]MEATT

Ogam Transcription: ][ ]()()[ ]()[ ][

Ogam Transliteration: ][ ]()()[ ]()[ ]()[ ][

Interpretation: *[ANM] CORREA MAQ V[VE]D(D)[EL]MEATT

By now, about 750 colour slides showing ogham stones from Ireland, Wales and Scotland have been digitized, documenting about 350 different inscriptions I have been able to inspect during the past twenty years; this is far more than half of the inscriptions that have been found and reported about so far (and the percentage would even be greater if I had not had to face the nightmare of all photographers: three colour slide films exposed in 1978 got lost during the developing process). It goes without saying that finishing the editing will take some time, and still about one third of the inscriptions known so far have to be visited and examined.

Internet publishing has several further advantages the present edition can benefit from. One of these consists in the fact that the handling of textual and graphical materials as necessary in epigraphical studies is an essential feature of internet browsers: It was just for the purpose of internet publishing that system-independent methods of linking texts and images were developed. The so-called "hypertext" procedures are used here for several purposes, e.g., for linking between interpretations of different inscriptions, between interpretations and an extended bibliography, between words appearing in the inscriptions and a dictionary, an index, a commentary etc. Linking is even possible between text and images or between different graphic files, e.g., between low resolution and high resolution pictures or between large scale and low scale maps for localizing monuments etc.

The linking facilities can be demonstrated using any one of the monuments documented here, e.g. CIIC no. 64 which you will find in Glenville, Co. Cork. Starting from the home page containing a list of inscriptions documented so far, the single descriptions of documents can be accessed by just clicking upon the pictures. The description in its turn contains small scale images (so-called thumb-nails) which serve as a link to their large scale equivalents. Another access to single pages is possible starting from the picture catalogue. Likewise, the entry concerning today's location of the monument, "Ballytrasna House", can be prepared as a link to a map of the area in question and so on.

It has to be stated once again that the present edition is not meant as being definite in any way. It should rather be regarded as a report about work in progress. Everybody is invited to send in comments, suggestions and the like to the e-mail address as given below. I should be extremely grateful for further support, especially for photographs or slides that could be included in the documentation.

Additional notes:


Copyright Jost Gippert Frankfurt a/M 1996. No parts of this document may be republished in any form without prior permission by the copyright holder.