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Newsgroup discussions in the summer of 2007 threw up a few interesting thoughts on the claims of "vowelless Ogam" or "Ogam consaine" inscriptions in many parts of America. Inscriptions there certainly are, best preserved in caves- but are they really in a very ancient form of the script known as Ogam, usually considered by experts to have originated in Ireland less than 2000 years ago?

To be more precise, the experts (such as Damian McManus, in A Guide to Ogam, 1991) suggest that Ogam originated around the time Christianity was introduced to Ireland- that would be a good generation or two before Palladius was sent as the first Bishop for the "Irish believing in Christ" in AD 431, so let's say towards the end of the 4th century. Evidence for an earlier date appeared to come from a pair of dice found in the second crannog (lake settlement) at Ballinderry, on the border of County Offaly, one of which appeared to have the "five" face inscribed with ogam rather than five dots. H. O'Neill Hencken, the archaeologist in charge of the excavation, conducted in the 1930s, dated them to the 2nd century AD in his report published in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy volume 47 (1942), but he was working before the development of radiocarbon dating (and in the infancy of dendrochronology) and his dates are no longer accepted. The crannog itself dates from the 8th-9th centuries AD, but it overlies what seems to be a 6th century hunters' camp-site, which is the likely context of the dice (see the article by Conor Newman in the Journal of Irish Archaeology volume 11, 2002).

It has also been suggested that Ogam, which works in a similar way to the five-notch system used on tally-sticks for counting stock, was carved on lengths of wood for a long time before it started to be used for stone monuments, but that none of the early wooden examples are known to have survived. There is a good deal of logic to this claim, but it has to be said that quite large numbers of ancient wooden artifacts survive in Ireland, thanks to the abundance of peat bogs- for example, the dozens of items from the first millennium BC found in a bog at Edercloon, Co.Longford, in the summer of 2006 (none of which had any Ogam markings). There are numerous old Ogam carvings on materials other than stone, most commonly bone, but also metal, amber, and indeed wood; however, all these date from later than AD 400.

In short, there is no evidence in Ireland for a "primitive" form of Ogam, without vowels. In fact I was most impressed during the summer's discussion when a very well-respected expert on writing systems pointed out that there are hardly any scripts at all which use symbols to represent basic sounds (rather than concepts) but don't include any vowels. Even "abjad" systems such as Hebrew have always represented some longer vowel sounds, and have ways to indicate where short vowels should be said. "Vowelless Ogam", on the other hand, not only omits all vowels- including the long vowel sounds which can be represented by "y" and "w" in some contexts- it also lacks any clues to indicate where the omitted vowels have come from. This can be a big problem with short words- in English, consider ON, ONE, ENO, EON, AN, ANY, IN, IAN, NO, NOW, WON, NAY and NEO all of which would become simply N without their vowels (or W and Y).

The late Barry Fell, the principal developer of the "vowelless Ogam" theory, committed one very sneaky piece of academic trickery, by giving the system the Irish name "Ogam consaine". Ogam consaine, or "ogham consonant" definitely exists, and has done since the late Middle Ages at least- but it's not the same as "vowelless Ogam". To understand it, we need to consider the way Ogam developed.

Ogam as seen in the earliest confirmed inscriptions has 20 characters, each consisting of between 1 and 5 straight lines carved at the edge of the slab (or piece of wood, or whatever) on which the inscription is being made. The lines could be either side of the edge, or could cross it, giving one group of five symbols "above" the edge, another group of five "below" the edge, and a third group of five crossing the edge. Vowels formed a fourth group of five symbols, consisting of very short lines- little more than elongated dots in some examples- crossing the edge. If the item to be inscribed had no edges, a long line could be inscribed in the surface first as a sort of symbolic edge- one famous early example is at Silchester in southern England, where a Celtic merchant had an Ogam inscription up a sculptured round column (possibly as a tombstone, or perhaps originally displayed at his house, though it was actually found down a well) the surviving portion of which translates roughly as ..."of Tebicatus, son of the tribe of".... Later, perhaps because very short vowel lines on some inscriptions became hard to read as they aged, the vowel lines were lengthened, and to maintain a distinction the edge-crossing consonant lines were tilted to cross the edge (or symbolic edge-line) at a skewed angle.

Use of Ogam for its original purpose, carved inscriptions, declined as more and more people mastered the art of carving the complex shapes of the Latin alphabet, but later in the Middle Ages there was something of a fashion in Ireland for writing in Ogam, perhaps to annoy the interfering English. One of the most irritating things the Irish could do with their ancient script was to separate vowels into their component parts, creating "Ogam consaine", as follows:

Ten of the Ogam consonants
Here are the ten Ogam consonant symbols which don't cross the edge line

Two ways of writing Ogam vowels
And here are the vowels, written both in the normal way, straight across the edge, and in the "Ogam consaine" way, as combinations of two consonants (colours for demonstration only)

Unless you have a really good grasp of the Irish language, it's quite difficult to read "Ogam consaine", because you need to know when you're seeing real consonants and when you're seeing pairs of consonants making vowels. The earliest known description of this system seems to be in a manuscript from about the end of the 15th century, now in the Bodleian Library at Oxford (MS Rawlinson B512, folio 126r), but it is clear that the writer is just copying an earlier manuscript for he puts a "g" where there should be a "q" and an "r" where there should be a "c" (some medieval handwriting styles had c looking quite like a modern r).

Finally, a very important point that's often missed. In writing and other artistic endeavours, "early" almost never equates with "crude"- quite the opposite, in fact. Look at your own handwriting in your old schoolbooks, and compare it with the way you write today, and you'll find you have developed all sorts of short-cuts, increasing speed at the expense of neatness and legibility. The Silchester column inscription, worn and damaged though it is, was originally carved quite neatly, with nice straight, parallel lines, and no great divergences of length. If you see an inscription of Ogam-like lines which are uneven lengths and not parallel, it's most unlikely to be "primitive Ogam", and much more lkely to be "late and lazy something-or-other".