Archeology: Ireland’s oldest ink pen dating back around 1,000 years discovered in County Clare

The oldest known ink pen from the British Isles was found during the excavation of a cashel, or stone fort, in County Clare.

Archaeologist Michelle Comber of the National University of Ireland, Galway, unearthed the 1,000-year-old writing instrument from the Caherconnell Cashel.

This 140-foot-wide ringfort was built in the late 10th century and is said to have housed wealthy – and, it seems, literate – local rulers until the early 1600s.

Other artefacts from the site have shown the occupants to engage in a variety of activities, ranging from crafts and metallurgy to commerce, games and music.

Most examples of early literacy in Ireland come from the Church, whose hardworking scribes painstakingly copied all manner of ecclesiastical texts.

The most famous, perhaps, is the Book of Kells – a manuscript created in honor of Christ in AD 800 that shines with calligraphy and elaborate illustrations.

However, Dr Comber believes the person who used the Caherconnell pen likely did so in order to record more mundane things like family lines and trades.

Ireland’s oldest known ink pen (pictured) – which sports a hollow bone barrel and copper alloy nib – was found during excavations of a cashel, or stone fort, in County Clare

Archaeologist Michelle Comber of the National University of Ireland, Galway unearthed the 1,000-year-old Caherconnell Cashel writing instrument, pictured

Archaeologist Michelle Comber of the National University of Ireland, Galway unearthed the 1,000-year-old Caherconnell Cashel writing instrument, pictured

Caherconnell Cashel

Caherconnell is a well-preserved cashel, or stone ringfort, in the region of County Clare known as the Burren.

The circular fort, about 140 feet wide, had dry stone walls 10 feet thick that probably once reached about 13 feet.

Radiocarbon dating suggests that the fort was built in the 10th century. Its inhabitants – the rulers enriched themselves through agriculture – occupied it until the 1600s.

Dr Comber told MailOnline that the Caherconnell bone and metal pen is the first complete example of a composite pen from anywhere in the British Isles.

Earlier in British history, however, the Romans were known to use pens made entirely from a copper alloy, rather than carrying a separate barrel and nib.

In England, several copper alloy feathers have been found, but without the necessary barrel, dating from the 13th to the 16th century.

On the other hand, a few hollow bone pen stems have been recovered from the London area and date from the 13th and 15th centuries.

If, as suspected given their lack of a splint tip, these were originally used with nibs attached – much like the Caherconnell pen – they have long been lost.

Perhaps the most curious part of the find, according to Dr Comber, is the context from which it appears to come – namely in a secular rather than a religious setting.

Perhaps the most curious part of discovering the pen (pictured) is the context it appears to come from - namely in a secular rather than a religious setting.

Perhaps the most curious part of discovering the pen (pictured) is the context it appears to come from – namely in a secular rather than a religious setting.

“The Caherconnell archeology project has been extremely rewarding, with many unexpected and exciting discoveries along the way,” the archaeologist explained.

“This discovery, however, exceeded all expectations, revealing the tantalizing prospect of advanced secular literacy in 11th century Ireland.”

The fact that most of the known evidence of early literacy in Ireland is rather associated with the Church – and that no pen of this age or this type had been found before – led Dr Comber to seek the confirmation that the artefact could indeed have functioned as a writing tool. .

As a result, she teamed up with experimental archaeologist Adam Parsons of Blueaxe Reproductions to make a replica of the historic tool.

Dr Comber teamed up with experimental archaeologist Adam Parsons of Blueaxe Reproductions to make a replica (pictured) of the historical tool - allowing the duo to demonstrate that the artefact would have functioned perfectly as a dip pen.

Dr Comber teamed up with experimental archaeologist Adam Parsons of Blueaxe Reproductions to make a replica (pictured) of the historical tool – allowing the duo to demonstrate that the artefact would have functioned perfectly as a dip pen.

When put to the test, the duo discovered that the modern duplicate worked – and its original counterpart would have worked – perfectly like a dip pen.

Dip pens are those that do not have an ink reservoir as is characteristic of modern fountain pens, and must be returned frequently to a well to replenish their supply.

This in itself sets the Caherconnell pen apart, as the most common writing instrument in the 11th century would have been the quill.

Caherconnell is a well-preserved cashel, or stone ringfort, in the region of County Clare known as the Burren.  The pen was dug up from a layer of sediment dating back to the 11th century

Caherconnell is a well-preserved cashel, or stone ringfort, in the region of County Clare known as the Burren. The pen was dug up from a layer of sediment dating back to the 11th century

According to expert calligrapher and historian Tim O’Neill, the design of the Caherconnell pen would lend itself well to use on fine work – perhaps even fine line drawing.

“A metal pen of such an ancient date is always difficult to credit,” Mr. O’Neill said.

“But the fact that it works with ink is here to see. It would have worked well for drawing straight lines – to form, say, a frame for a page.

The 140-foot-wide Ringfort was built in the late 10th century and is said to have housed wealthy - and, it seems, literate - local rulers until the early 1600s.

The 140-foot-wide Ringfort was built in the late 10th century and is said to have housed wealthy – and, it seems, literate – local rulers until the early 1600s.

WHAT IS THE BOOK OF KELLS?

The Book of Kells manuscript, which eclipsed all other artistic and cultural achievements of the early Middle Ages, was created around 800 AD by Irish monks to glorify the life of Christ.

It was made from sheets of calfskin decorated with elaborate illustrations and Latin calligraphy.

It contains the Latin text of the four Gospels, and all but two of the pages are decorated with intricate designs and symbolic images.

The Book of Kells manuscript, which eclipsed all other artistic and cultural achievements of the early Middle Ages, was created around 800 AD by Irish monks to glorify the life of Christ.

The Book of Kells manuscript, which eclipsed all other artistic and cultural achievements of the early Middle Ages, was created around 800 AD by Irish monks to glorify the life of Christ.

It is believed that it would have taken up to 30 years for a team of illustrators to complete.

Three artists seem to have produced the large decorated pages.

A monastery founded around 561 AD by St Colum Cille on Iona, an island off Mull in western Scotland, became the main home of a large monastic confederation.

In 806 AD, following Viking raids on the island that left 68 the community dead, Colombian monks took refuge in a new monastery in Kells, County Meath.

An epidemic, possibly smallpox, which struck the monastery in the early 9th century may also have contributed to the move.

The manuscript remained there for nearly 700 years, except for one incident when it was stolen and found weeks later without its gilded and gem-adorned cover and with a few missing pages.

It arrived at Trinity College, Dublin in 1661 AD and is still on display there today.

The Book of Kells was first thrown at a monastery on Iona, an island off the west of Scotland.  In 806 AD, following a Viking raid, the monks settled in Kells in County Meath, Ireland.  The manuscript arrived at Trinity College, Dublin, in AD 1661, where it remains

The Book of Kells was first thrown at a monastery on Iona, an island off the west of Scotland. In 806 AD, following a Viking raid, the monks settled in Kells in County Meath, Ireland. The manuscript arrived at Trinity College, Dublin, in AD 1661, where it remains

The first mention of this work of art is the entry in the Annals of Ulster in the year AD 1007, which records that “the great gospel book of Columcille, the principal relic of the western world, was stolen overnight from the large stone church of Cenannus (Kells) ‘.

Over the past century, an ever-increasing number of scholars wanted access to the manuscript.

In 1986, Trinity College authorized Facsimile Verlag of Lucerne, Switzerland, to photograph the complete manuscript and create a limited edition of 1,480 numbered copies.

Most of them can be found in libraries around the world.


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