Teacher Finds 1600 Year Old Artifact While Weeding Garden

A geography teacher from Coventry, England accidently found a piece of ancient history in his own backyard. While weeding his overgrown garden, Graham Senior stumbled upon a rock with mysterious markings etched into it. Intrigued, Senior sent photos of it to a local archaeologist and was astonished to learn that the stone bore ogham script, an ancient alphabet used more than 1,600 years ago.

The stone and its ancient inscription in the ogham alphabet were found in a garden in the English city of Coventry in 2020. (Image credit: The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum)

The rectangular sandstone rock, inscribed with ogham—a writing system used in early medieval Ireland—has been deemed museum-worthy. Ogham, consisting of parallel lines etched into stone, was primarily used to write the Irish language before the adoption of the Latin insular script.

Senior, 55, talked about the discovery: “I was just clearing a flowerbed of weeds and stones when I saw this thing and thought, that’s not natural, that’s not scratchings of an animal. It can’t have been more than four or five inches below the surface.” After washing the stone, he consulted a relative, who suggested he contact the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), an initiative encouraging the public to record archaeological finds.

Teresa Gilmore, an archaeologist and finds liaison officer for Staffordshire and West Midlands based at Birmingham Museums, was amazed by the find. “This is an amazing find. The beauty of the Portable Antiquities Scheme is that people are finding stuff that keeps rewriting our history. This particular find has given us a new insight into early medieval activity in Coventry, which we still need to make sense of. Each find like this helps in filling in our jigsaw puzzle and gives us a bit more information.”

The stone is about the size of a chocolate bar and is inscribed with a message in the Irish ogham alphabet thought to be about 1,600 years old. (Image credit: Birmingham Museums Trust)

After seeing photos of the stone, Gilmore recognized the stone’s significance and contacted Professor Katherine Forsyth, a Celtic Studies expert at the University of Glasgow. Forsyth confirmed the stone’s ogham script, identifying it as an early style likely dating from the fifth to sixth century, possibly even the fourth century.

Gilmore highlighted the rarity of such finds in the Midlands, noting, “Such stones are very rare and have generally been found in Ireland or Scotland … so to find them in the Midlands is actually unusual.” She speculated that the stone could be linked to Irish immigrants or early medieval monasteries in the region. “You would have had monks and clerics moving between the different monasteries,” she explained.

The stone, measuring 11 cm long and weighing 139 grams, is inscribed on three of its four sides. Its purpose remains unclear, though Gilmore suggested it might have been a portable commemorative item. “It could have been a portable commemorative item. We don’t know. It’s an amazing little thing.”

The ogham alphabet was used to write the Irish language in the early medieval period, often in inscriptions on stones. (Image credit: The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum)

The inscription, “Maldumcail/ S/ Lass,” was partially deciphered by Gilmore. “The first part relates to a person’s name, Mael Dumcail. The second part is less certain. We’re not sure where the S/ Lass comes from. It is probably a location. So something like ‘had me made’.”

Senior expressed his excitement over the artifact’s significance, noting, “We’re not far from the River Sowe. My thinking is that it must have been a major transport route.”

The rock will be displayed at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry, to which Senior has generously donated it.

Ali Wells, a curator at the museum, expressed her astonishment at the find. “It is really quite incredible. The language originates from Ireland. So, to have found it within Coventry has been an exciting mystery. Coventry has been dug up over the years, especially the city center, so there’s not that many new finds. It was quite unexpected.”

For the original story, visit The Guardian.

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