Ireland’s oldest-known ink pen has been 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 writing implement from the Caherconnell Cashel.
This 140-foot-wide ringfort was built in the late 10th century and would have been home to wealthy — and, it seems, literate — local rulers until the early 1600s.
Other artefacts from the site have shown that the occupants engaged in varied pursuits, from fine craftworking and metalwork to trade, games and music.
Most examples of early literacy in Ireland come from the Church, whose hardworking scribes painstakingly copied all manner of ecclesiastical texts.
Most famous, perhaps, is the Book of Kells — a manuscript created in honour of Christ in 800 AD that is resplendent with elaborate calligraphy and illustrations.
However, Dr Comber believes that the individual who used the Caherconnell pen likely did so in order to record more mundane things like family lineages and trades.
Ireland’s oldest-known ink pen (pictured) — which sports a hollow bone barrel and copper-alloy nib — has been 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 writing implement from the Caherconnell Cashel, pictured
Caherconnell is a well-preserved cashel, or stone ringfort, in the region of County Clare known as the Burren.
The circular fort, some 140 feet wide, had 10-feet-thick drystone walls that likely once reached up some 13 feet.
Radiocarbon dating suggests the fort was built in the 10th century. Its residents — rulers made wealthy from farming — occupied it until the 1600s.
Dr Comber told MailOnline that the bone-and-metal Caherconnell pen is the earliest complete example of a composite pen from anywhere within the British Isles.
Earlier in British history, however, the Romans were known to use pens that were made entirely of a copper-alloy, rather than sporting a separate barrel and nib.
In England, several copper-alloy nibs have been found, albeit without the necessary barrel, dating from between the 13th and 16th centuries.
On the flip side, a couple of hollow bone pen shafts have been recovered from the London area that data to the 13th–15th centuries.
If, as suspected given their lack of splint point, these were originally used with attached nibs — much like the Caherconnell pen — such have been long lost.
According to Dr Comber, perhaps the most curious part of the discovery is the context from which it appears to have originated, namely in a secular, rather than religious, setting.
Perhaps the most curious part of the discovery of the pen (pictured) is the context from which it appears to have originated — namely in a secular, rather than religious, setting
‘The Caherconnell Archaeology project has been a hugely rewarding one, with many unexpected and exciting discoveries along the way,’ the archaeologist explained.
‘This find has, however, exceeded all expectations, revealing the tantalising prospect of an advanced secular literacy in 11th-century Ireland.’
The fact that most known evidence of early literacy in Ireland is associated instead with the Church — and no pen of this age or type had previously been found — led Dr Comber to seek confirmation that the artefact could, indeed, have functioned as a writing tool.
Accordingly, she teamed up with experimental archaeologist Adam Parsons of Blueaxe Reproductions to fabricate a replica of the historical implement.
Dr Comber teamed up with experimental archaeologist Adam Parsons of Blueaxe Reproductions to fabricate a replica (pictured) of the historical implement — enabling the duo to demonstrate that the artefact would have worked perfectly as a dip pen
When put through its paces, the duo found that the modern duplicate does work — and its original counterpart would have worked — just perfectly as a dip pen.
Dip pens are those that have no ink reservoir as is characteristic of modern fountain pens, and need to be returned to a well frequently to replenish their supply.
This in itself set the Caherconnell pen apart, as the more common writing implement in the 11th century would have been the feather quill.
Caherconnell is a well-preserved cashel, or stone ringfort, in the region of County Clare known as the Burren. The pen was unearthed form a layer of sediments dating to the 11th century
According to expert calligrapher and historian Tim O’Neill, the design of the Caherconnell pen would have lent it well for use on fine work — perhaps even the drawing of fine lines.
‘A metal pen from such an early date is still hard to credit,’ Mr O’Neill said.
‘But the fact that it functions with ink is there to see. It would have worked well for ruling straight lines — to form, for instance, a frame for a page.’
The 140-foot-wide ringfort was built in the late 10th century and would have been home to 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 in around 800 AD by Irish monks to glorify the life of Christ.
It was made from calfskin leaves 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 imagery.
The Book of Kells manuscript, which eclipsed all other artistic and cultural achievements of the early Middle Ages, was created in around 800 AD by Irish monks to glorify the life of Christ
It is thought it would have taken a team of illustrators up to 30 years to finish.
Three artists seem to have produced the major decorated pages.
A monastery founded around 561 AD by St Colum Cille on Iona, an island off Mull in western Scotland, became the principal house of a large monastic confederation.
In 806 AD, following Viking raids on the island which left 68 of the community dead, the Columban monks took refuge in a new monastery at Kells, County Meath.
An outbreak of disease, possibly smallpox, that hit the monastery in the early part of the ninth century may also have contributed to the move.
The manuscript remained there for almost 700 years, bar one incident when it was stolen and found weeks later without its golden, jewelled cover and with some pages missing.
It came to Trinity College, Dublin, in 1661 AD, and is still on display there today.
The Book of Kells was first started at a monastery on the on Iona, an island off western Scotland. In 806 AD, following a Viking raid, the monks moved to Kells in County Meath, Ireland. The manuscript came to Trinity College, Dublin, in 1661 AD, where it remains
The first mention of this work of art is an the entry in the Annals of Ulster under the year 1007 AD, which records that ‘the great Gospel book of Columcille, the chief relic of the western world, was stolen during the night from the great stone church of Cenannus (Kells)’.
During the last century, an ever increasing number of scholars wanted access to the manuscript.
In 1986, Trinity College allowed Facsimile Verlag of Luzern, Switzerland, to photograph the complete manuscript and create a limited edition of 1,480 numbered copies.
Most of these are in libraries around the world.