Thursday, December 28, 2017

Thanks for reading! | The Top 10 posts of 2017

Over the course of 2017 I’ve published some 63 posts of varying kinds, that garnered just under 70,000 views. As the year is drawing to a close, I just wanted to thank everyone who has read, shared, and (hopefully) enjoyed some of the content along the way. For those who missed out and would like to catch up, here are the Top 10 posts from 2017, plus a final, end-of-year plug for two posts that I really enjoyed writing that, I think, should have been a bit more widely read than they were.

Again, my thanks for reading in 2017 … I’m already working on a large number of posts for 2018, so I hope to catch your interest with some of those too!

Finally, here are my personal picks of two posts that didn’t make the Top 10, but meant quite a bit to me and, I think, deserve a bit of reading love …

‘The Shape of an L’:Thoughts on the occurrence and meaning of the L-shape in Early Medieval art and religion

‘Marrow mash’: the possible medicinal use of cattle bone marrow in Early Historic Ireland

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Ringhaddy Castle, Co. Down 3D

Ringhaddy Castle, Co. Down

Some time ago, I took my children, the Chapples Minor, out for a day of archaeology sightseeing. Admittedly, promises of significant amounts of both bacon and ice cream had to be made to ensure compliance with the plan. Once we had attained some degree of agreement, the next question was where exactly we should go. The parameters included: sites we’d not previously visited before and distances relatively close to home. At this point, I deftly reached for my copy of ‘A Guide to the Historic Monuments of Northern Ireland in State Care’ and began to leaf through. I quickly identified a cluster of sites along the western edge of Strangford Lough as worthy of further investigation. Places like Mahee Castle and Nendrum monastic site were fairly well known to us, but other dots on the map were less so. That is how I ended up, having followed my SatNav, on a narrow road with a number of ‘Private: Keep Out’ signs, looking and feeling lost. I spoke to a passing farm worker who told me that access to the Ringhaddy Castle and Church is usually only granted by prior appointment (not something noted in the guide book)*. After a short wait, I was introduced to the landowner who explained that he was not well disposed towards casual callers as he had suffered several thefts of machinery in recent times. He eventually took the opinion that only the most enterprising thief would come equipped with an elaborate cover story involving small children and an archaeological guide book. The serious point here is that, more and more, landowners have reason to be wary of visitors to their farms and we visitors (no matter how well intentioned) would be wise to recognise this. For my part, I was prepared to retreat with either an email or postal address and wait until my credentials could be ascertained … though, whether the contents of this blog would have worked in my favour or not is debatable. In any case, reassured of our good intentions, the landowner relented and allowed us access to the sites on his land.

The castle is described in the guidebook as ‘one of the most completely surviving tower houses in the county, retaining its gables and … an original wooden window’. The latter has been removed and conserved by NIEA. It’s difficult to see under the ivy, but the castle appears to be of two major periods. The ground floor with its stone vault dates to the 15th century. The vault was replaced with a wooden floor when the upper portions of the castle were rebuilt sometime around 1600. The castle is mentioned several times in the Elizabethan portions of the Calendar of State Papers and it appears that it changed hands on a number of occasions between Bryan McArt and the English forces. One letter (26 October 1602) from Charles Blount, 8th Baron Mountjoy, to English politician and administrator, Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, notes that McArt ‘held his personal residence’ at the castle. However, on hearing of Lord Deputy Mountjoy’s arrival in the Lecale ‘he quitted his castle and beat it down to the ground’. Another letter (5 March 1602) is from Sir Ralph Lane (best known for his connection to the ill-fated Roanoke Colony in North Carolina) to Robert Cecil. Here Sir Ralph suggests that his success in reconstructing the ‘small castle of Ranahaddy’ should be followed up with a formal Plantation of the area. The castle was also used to house prisoners, as the October letter mentions a report from William Debdall, ‘Constable of Rannahady’, of an escape from the tower in May 1602. He adds that he had ‘made the castle strong enough to prevent’ further such instances. Taking these and other sources, it seems most likely that the Tower House phase relates to the McArt occupation and that the later building work was carried out by Lane in and after 1602.

Once upon a time this castle was much contested and the security of the surrounding lands depended on who held it and how they wielded their power. Today it is peaceful and quiet. The walls are ivy-covered, the ground floor only partly accessible through briars and sundry other plants. For all that, it is still a lovely site that was very much worth the time taken to visit.

Plan & elevation of castle (Source: SM7 File)

The guide book says “At quay turn left through gate to castle on Castle Island”

If you go to the Northern Ireland Sites and Monuments Record [here] you can search for the site as DOW 024:012. The scanned contents of the NIEA’s SM7 file on the site is available [here].

While I have tried to present the story in a light & engaging manner, I cannot stress enough my genuine gratitude to the landowner for granting us access to the Castle and Church.

Out and about in Co Down. A Table of Contents of the Posts

One summer's day in 2015 I took my children, the Chapples Minor, off for an adventure of archaeology (supplemented by quantities of bacon and ice cream). In my typical style, it's only now (at the end of 2017) that I'm getting around to giving an account of where we went and what we saw. As I said with the series of Glendalough posts: I saw the sights, I took some photos. I've even turned some of the photos into 3D anaglyphs.

The purpose of this post is to act as a Table of Contents to the various posts. As each post is published, the corresponding links will go live, so if you can’t reach an individual post, do come back later!

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Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Portaferry Castle Conservation

Portaferry Castle is a small 16th century Tower House built by William Le Savage. The Chapple Family are fairly regular visitors to Portaferry, mainly to see the Exploris Aquarium and I’ve written before about the Tower House [Here] and shared some 3D photos [Here].

The image in this post is a quick snapshot taken while passing on our way to the aquarium at the end of December last (2016). The interior of the castle is filled with scaffolding, apparently part of a conservation effort to secure the fabric of the building against decay and preserve it for another generation. All this scaffolding is an arresting sight and it made me reflect on how the castle must have looked during construction in the 16th century. I doubt that anyone at the time imagined that it would still be a prominent local feature in the 21st century and that we'd be spending money to preserve it. I wonder which of the buildings we're putting up today will be around in the 26th century? ...

Adventures in London museums: Table of Contents

Over the last few years I’ve been lucky enough to get over to London on a number of occasions on my own just to bask in the gorgeousness of various museums. Not doing research on any particular project, just as a tourist out having a look and a poke about. In this series of posts, I want to share some photographs from my excursions to three of my favourites: The British Museum; The Victoria & Albert Museum; and The Petrie Museum. In most cases, my intention is to merely give a few basic details about the piece: the location, provenance, date, that kind of thing. Some will have little snippets of stories to go with them, explaining my fascination with the piece or maybe it won’t. Some of these pieces I consider to be old friends – visited every time I go to the museum – while others are new acquaintances. All of them touched me in some way – intellectually, aesthetically, or emotionally ... sometimes all three … maybe they’ll do the same for you!

My intention with this post is to use it as a general table of contents, showing the individual blog posts under the heading of each of the institutions that curates them.

The British Museum

The Victoria & Albert Museum

The Petrie Museum

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Bronze Axes in the Ulster Museum

Today’s image is a small selection of bronze axes from the rather wonderful Ulster Museum. The example on the left is from Lisnisk, Co Antrim, while the one on the right is from Drumlough, Hillsborough, Co Down. The example in the middle is only located to Ireland in general.

The Ulster Museum is open Tuesdays to Sundays & is free! Go explore!

Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Shape of an L - a reply from Junior F [Watchman]

I love the idea that people read the posts I write. Some you like, some … less so. Whatever people think about the individual piece, I’m always grateful to know that I provoked some degree of thought and discussion. It is genuinely humbling and I thank all those who get in touch to discuss a piece or give me additional information, or help me build a fuller understanding. Then there’s “Junior F [Watchman]” … He decided that, after reading my most recent post about the possible meaning of the L-shape in Early Medieval Irish art that he had to go track down my personal email account and send me a 1,200 word reply under the title of “A mission to find your contact email..”.

An edge-on view of the wonderful Stowe Missal Shrine (Warner 1906)

Although I never claimed that the idea of the Trinity was ‘Biblical Doctrine’, he really wants to put me straight on this issue and how it ‘is one of the most profound lies spread by Catholicism which is diametrically opposed to the Shema’. He reckons (without providing anything as tawdry as evidence) that the ‘L-shape’ could refer to ‘"EL-ohim" in Biblical Hebrew is the word for "God", a Supreme title.’ I’m also accused of using the word ‘write’ when I should have said (or ‘typed’) that I had typed it. As only Junior F [Watchman]’s god can create anything and you can’t use the word in any other way, I’m blaspheming against him. Junior F [Watchman] needs to tell me that: ‘you are basically assisting the 'stupidizing' of language by using certain terms in definitions that have been "SOCIALIZED"/"PAGANZIED" and you have no clue it seems that when you use the word "Create" in a definition that is has nothing to do with God being subject of the word "Create", you are actually blaspheming Him’. He goes on to say that Jesus commands him to warn me against this. He’s not particularly clear whether this is a general command or if Jesus mentioned me specifically, but from what I can gather of Junior F [Watchman]’s personality, it really could go either way. Junior F [Watchman]’s tone then takes a turn for the dark and violent as he notes ‘what you do with this after is your situation, not mine, sinch (sic.) by then your blood is off my hands.’ He ends with the charming statement that 'I can provide more evidence if requested.' ... Frankly, I'm at a loss to see what evidence he's presented at all ... but, different strokes and all that ...

I suppose that my greatest disappointment here is that I would have hoped that, should I ever be contacted by a member of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, it’d be Silk Spectre, Rorschach, or even Dr Manhattan (heck, even Night Owl, at a push!) … not some lightly deranged ‘former paganos-catholicos of 30+ years’ who takes his spelling lessons from the Tyndale Bible he quotes as his email sig file. For the record, I’ve decided to post his entire comment here and not reply directly to him ... just in case I’m suddenly hit by a bolt of lightening …

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Greetings in the one who inhabits all of eternity,

Mr. Robert Chapple.. i came across your article today title "The Shape of an L".

I'm a former paganos-catholicos of 30+ years emaiing you from Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  Within the last 12 years of my life i became a true born again beliver according to proper first century Jude 1:1-3 Gospel understanding as it was actually taught in the first century mindset by Jesus and the Apostles. Thus, the "Trinity" is NOT "Bible Doctrine", rather it's Platonic Philosophy that was injected forcefully into the early church by the very wolves that Jesus, Peter, James, John and Paul warned about w/ tears (See Acts 20:29 + Colossians 2:8-9 as one prime example.)  Further, i am trained in biblical greek and biblical hebrew of varying strengths and frankly to claim the "Trinity" is "Biblical Doctrine" is one of the most profound lies spread by Catholicism which is diametrically opposed to the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4 and many other examples in the Old and New Covenant.) The Trinity philosophy, that's what it is, is part of what is known as "Mystery Religions" especially of Egypt and Babylon and it is an utmost severe corruption of the Biblical New Covenant Israelite comprehension of the Godhead.  God has a name, His name is Jesus, He is the Spirit of all spirits, He is not a 'person' (See Numbers 23:19, Job 9:32, 1Samuel 15:29). There were many various trinity religious philosophies which of course belonged to pagans and heathens before God incarnated and named Himself Jesus which before God did this, the Hebrews who later became Israelites, knew with no doubts, that ANYONE who worshipped a 'trinity', were pagans or heathens, it was a severe corruption of the ONE God.  Therefore your claims that are founded on the false belief that the Trinity is "Biblical Doctrine", well when a foundation is bulit on a great false rock, and really it's sand, it is self-destruction when the time comes for they are direct opposition to correct exegesis of the Biblical Greek and Biblical Hebrew of the first century.

As for the "L" .. "EL-ohim" in Biblical Hebrew is the word for "God", a Supreme title.  It could be the "L's" that you see everywhere are a reference to "El" (El-ohim). Though the word is a plural word in Hebrew grammar, only when it is used for the God of the Holy Bible, it is used in the singular form as part of factual comprehension of proper grammatical Hebrew as substantiated by Deuteronomy 6:4, thus, to claim God is a trinity, when there are so many Biblical verses when properly exegeted that refute God is a trinity, well frankly.. you are spreading a Catholic position, and any non-denonominational (denonominational is a Catholic term, not biblical) true born again beliver in Jesus the Christ (Matthew 6:24-34, Mark 8:34-38 / Luke 9:23-24, 14:27, 17:33 / John 3:3-5, 3:16, 12:24-25 / Galatians 5:19-26 / 1Corinthians 1:30-31, 1Peter4:17-18 etc) knows that such a position is the utmost doctrine of devils that was injected into the early church that was infiltrated by the mystery religion wolves who pretended to be 'true believers in the One God" but bit by bit were fully successful after 150 A.D. of their infiltration thereby causing so many to believe that the "Trinity" was a biblical doctrine when even according to John the Apostle's disciple "Polycarp", in his own writings he has no problem revealing candidly that right before his death circa 150s A.D., the early church was already fully infiltrated by all these wolves and were spreading and had cemented most severe corruptions and perversions of the Godhead understanding according to the Israelite mindset, and thus were also successful in injecting many other false views of the Scriptures which of course again, Jesus, Peter, James, John and Paul warned about with tears on their couch when they wrote their letters to born again bible believing ekklesia.  All the books of the New Testament were written from late 30s A.D. to around 98 A.D.  All the 27 books of the Holy Bible were already accepted among all bible born again communities in the Land of Israel in this time frame as "Biblical Canon".  Rome was still very much pagan at this time as it still is, and it was Rome who murdered Peter and Paul.  Rome didn't decide to adopt what Jesus and the Apostles taught until around 330s A.D. and the version they adopted was a very corrupted version mixed with Mithraism and the Egyptian cult of Serapis, which existed circa around 200 B.C. as an Egyptian/Greco Theosis cult which is where the classic Greek word "Christian" comes from which is NOT a word that Jesus or Paul used (who wrote most of the New Covenant) and the word "Christian" and "Christianity" are actually terms that were used by the Cult of Serapis, even Hadrian confirms this and the word "Christian" is a severe pejorative insult to the Apostles and their disciples for the word "Christian" actually implies deity (hence why such cults were theosis cults) and thus nowhere did Jesus or the Apostles teach that when you become born again, you became a little god/little (the) christ/little divinity/little king of israel etc, it's utterly blasphemous. The word "Christian" is only used 3 times in the New Testament and each time it's used, it's used as the pejorative diminutive it was understood as.  When the Emperor of Rome, Emperor Hadrian _(76 A.D. - 138 A.D.)_ wrote from the area that Alexander conquered he said;

"Those who worship Serapis are *Christianos (Christians) and those who call themselves Bishops of "Christ" are vowed to Serapis (S..ap..) a GRACEO-EGYPTIAN God."

Lastly, only God/Jesus creates, for it means "Out of nothing - Exnihlo" which the Holy Bible makes clear only God is subject of the word "Create", it's something only HE does, NOT man.  Also in your article you use the word "WRITE".  IF you typed out your article, this is not "WRITING" this is TYPING. It is of utmost importance in today's english age which shows itself to be increasingly and quickly degenerating into idiot english from intelligent english, it's becoming so more apparent that the internet is causing many people to not become wiser, more intelligent, but actually more dictionary illiterate.  You're not writing unless you actually wrote your article with your hands and a pen or pencil etc.  I hope the following quotes help you comprehend what you are doing, that you are basically assisting the 'stupidizing' of language by using certain terms in definitions that have been "SOCIALIZED"/"PAGANZIED" and you have no clue it seems that when you use the word "Create" in a definition that is has nothing to do with God being subject of the word "Create", you are actually blaspheming Him, you may not care, but I do as a born again remnant believer and Jesus commands me to warn you against it, what you do with this after is your situation, not mine, sinch by then your blood is off my hands.

I can provide more evidence if requested.

Thus .. if one builds their foundations an very seriously false understanding of the first century Israelite mindset and facts of the New Testament, their whole journey is cursed and fraught with error that all emanates from beginning on the left foot, instead of the right.




Philippians 1:21   For the Christ is to me lyfe and deeth is to me a vauntage.  – Tyndale Bible 1534

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As a little  PS, I’d just like to reiterate that, even when I use a keyboard, I’m still writing and I can (and do) create both art and literature – it’s not a term reserved just for the actions of a god. If Junior F [Watchman] doesn’t like this, I suggest that he prays for me to stop!

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

‘The Shape of an L’: Thoughts on the occurrence and meaning of the L-shape in Early Medieval art and religion.

[If you like this post, please feel free to share. If you can spare a little cash, I’d be grateful if you could hit the secure ‘donate’ button on the right. Either way, thanks for reading!]

St Patrick’s Bell shrine (Source)

One evening last September I posted a picture to Facebook of the back of the rather wonderful St Patrick’s Bell Shrine. This rear panel is decorated with a combination of equal-armed Greek Crosses, swastikas, and T-shaped or ‘Tau’ crosses. The blog post I wrote as a direct result of that online conversation ("Always remember to draw the swastika turning to the right": Some thoughts on swastika directionality in Early Medieval Irish Art) was (as the name implies) intended to examine the evidence for directionality of Early Medieval swastikas in Ireland or of Irish manufacture. There was a secondary aim to create a basic catalogue of the currently known examples and appeal for anyone with further information to come forward.

In the lively discussion that sprung up around the original Facebook post, a friend raised a dissenting voice and suggested that the swastika symbols were only part of the design because that’s how the Greek crosses were stacked together – purely accidental and unintentional. In his assessment of the back of the shrine he argued that a repeating pattern of Greek crosses would not fit neatly into a rectangular form and would necessitate some cutting and clipping to make it fit. His view was that these ‘offcuts’ may superficially resemble Taus, but it is no more than that. My contention at that time was (and remains) that the various craftspeople responsible for the design and manufacture of these items were extremely skilled and did not incorporate elements lightly or unintentionally. As another friend and respected archaeologist remarked “To suggest any less is to completely underestimate the sophistication of these works.” However, something he (the first friend) said at the time hit a nerve. He said “Some may resemble a tau, coincidentally, but the … L pieces of every orientation do not appear to offer any secret message.” As he is clearly and demonstrably wrong when it comes to the deliberate use of the Tau, I am unconcerned (I’m not sure he agrees with me, but what can you do?) … but it’s those pesky L-shapes. As soon as he mentioned them as being an irrelevance on the Bell Shrine I started seeing them everywhere … if one takes the view that Early Medieval craftspeople were as skilled and as thoughtful as we often claim, their inclusion of an apparently random design element must carry meaning … or perhaps they weren’t as smart as we give them credit for?

Folio 210v, Lindisfarne Gospels (Source)

After reading my friend’s comments, the first place I noticed an apparently aberrant L-shape was on Folio 210v of the Lindisfarne Gospels. Here, there are four small swastikas that form what may be best described as a rectilinear pattern overlying a writhing inhabited vine scroll motif. I hadn’t noticed it initially, but the centre portion of the page is dominated by a Greek cross. There are then four Tau crosses, one aligned to each terminal of the Greek cross. Each of the four swastikas are presented in squares that form part of this outer edge of rectilinear ornamentation. So far, so good! Greek crosses, Taus, swastikas – they’re all forms of cross and they’re all explicable in that context. Then the L’s started to bother me. There’s one in each of the four corners. If I am going to argue that all the other major motifs are explicable and carry a theological message, how can I ignore this?

Folio 27v, Book of Kells (Source)

While these are the only examples I am aware of where L-shapes and swastikas are combined, they are not the only examples of the former in Irish art. For something closely paralleled with the Lindisfarne Gospels, we can turn to The Book of Kells on Folio 27v where the symbols of the four evangelists are surrounded by sumptuous, decorated borders. The centre of the page is decorated with what may be described as a stepped Greek cross, and Taus are present at the four edges. Each of the four corners of the page bears an L-shape, with a further L-shape stacked on its outer edge.

Myklebostad escutcheon (Source)

Leaving aside the manuscript evidence, I want to turn to the evidence from metalwork, specifically the famous hanging-bowl mount from Myklebostad in Norway. Although recovered from a Viking grave of the early 9th century, the figure is thought to be of Irish manufacture, dating to the 8th to 9th centuries. The piece is distinctive owing to the oversized head with oval eyes and prominent brow, contrasting with the short, squat legs. The rectangular body is decorated with five squares of millefiori, arranged in a quincunx or saltire formation. The spaces in between are each decorated with two interlocking L-shapes.

Oseberg Mount (Source)

Also of 8th to 9th century date is the enamelled mount from the famous Oseberg burial, again of Irish manufacture. Here the central square is decorated with four L-shapes in yellow enamel. Each of the outer quadrants contains two L-shapes in yellow enamel. In each case, the two L-shapes are separated by a rectangle of millefiori glass which ‘emphasise the cruciform elements of the design’ (Youngs 1989, 61). Thus, we have an object that combines an equal-armed cross with 12 L-shapes. It may, however, be pushing the elasticity of the argument to suggest that the diagonal lines in bronze may be read as a saltire cross.

Left-hand portion of the buckle, Moylough Belt Shrine (O’Kelly 1965)

Right-hand portion of the buckle, Moylough Belt Shrine (O’Kelly 1965) 
One of the medallions, Moylough Belt Shrine (O’Kelly 1965)

One of the medallions, Moylough Belt Shrine (O’Kelly 1965)

As an undergraduate in my final year, the Moylough Belt Shrine used to haunt my dreams. The late Prof Rynne lectured extensively on the piece and it made frequent appearances as an exam question. It dates to the 8th century and is largely made of bronze in a variety of forms with some silver and enamel adornments. While Rynne’s lectures concentrated on the complexities of the manufacturing process, he seems to have passed over some of the decorative elements. Or, at the very least, I appear to only recently have noticed the large numbers of Taus and L-shapes it bears. The two main areas of decoration are the two sides of the buckle arrangement. On the right-hand side a silver panel is framed with an enamelled bronze arrangement. Two corners are decorated with millefiori squares and the opposite corners hold raised glass domes. The intervening sides are decorated with a combination of Taus and L-shapes. The top and bottom edges both bear one set of interlocking L-shapes, and a panel of two Taus and two L-shapes. The left-hand edge (nearest the buckle) has two groups of two interlocking L-shapes, while the opposite side has a single panel composed of two Taus and two L-shapes. The L-shapes even continue beyond this, with two interlocking examples forming the necks of the toothed animal heads to the right of the main square. It is slightly difficult to make out in the images from O’Kelly’s publication (1965), but the two corners nearest the buckle edge are slightly raised in comparison to the surrounding decoration. In this way each of the two millefiori squares combine with two sets of interlocking L-shapes to form larger L-shapes. This feature of a raised L-shaped corner is visible on Ranvaik’s Casket (discussed below) and on the well-known Ballinderry gaming board. The opposite (left-hand) side of the buckle arrangement is very similar in composition. Here the rectangular silver panel is surrounded by the same form of cast bronze frame, decorated with millefiori and enamel. In this case, all four corners are decorated with millefiori squares, combined with two sets of two interlocking L-shapes to form four larger L-shapes. The top and bottom edges are both decorated with a series of two L-shapes and two Taus, all interlocking. The left and right edges each bear an S-shape, the exact meaning of which is difficult to ascertain. They may be interpreted as a debased form of the meandros or an S-scroll, executed in a rectilinear manner, in keeping with the rest of the ornament on the frame. Again, the necks of the two toothy animals are each composed of a pair of interlocking L-shapes. The other major decorative elements of the belt shrine are four ringed cross medallions, one attached to each of the four hinged portions. Though similar, each is unique and two of the medallions bear enamelled L-shapes. The ring of one medallion, with D-shaped terminals, is decorated with alternating squares of millefiori and interlocking L-shapes. On the second example the ring is decorated with 12 millefiori squares, singly and in pairs, interspersed with interlocking L-shapes. In both cases, 16 L-shapes are used to form eight squares.

Edge panel, Stowe Missal Shrine (Warner 1906)

Edge panel, Stowe Missal Shrine (Warner 1906)

I couldn't allow this opportunity to write about the Stowe Missal Shrine to go by without adding this magnificent 3D image (anaglyph). I'm particularly grateful to Simon Chadwick for his permission to reproduce it here (Source). 

The Stowe Missal Shrine was crafted from oak and decorated with a variety of metal plaques as a protective housing for an illuminated manuscript. While the manuscript dates to the late 8th or early 9th centuries, the shrine is of a variety of periods ranging from 1027-1033 and 1375. For many viewers, myself included, the eye is instinctively drawn to the human figures – an assortment of angels, clerics and warriors – and can easily ignore the plainer panels. On one side, set between two plaques depicting warriors, is an openwork grille, in many respects comparable to the one on the back of the St Patrick’s Bell Shrine. This example is composed of an arrangement of 12 equal-armed, Greek crosses in three rows, and 20 squares, in four rows. The border is formed of 14 Taus and each of the four corners bears an L-shape. The other grille is similar, but not quite identical, being slightly truncated. As it sits beside the panel with two ecclesiastics (one with a bell and the other holding a crozier), an angel, and a harper, it is always going to be paid somewhat less attention. Here the composition is of 16 squares in four lines, and nine crosses in three lines. The border is formed of 12 Taus, and once again the four corners are L-shapes.

Ranvaik’s Casket. © Danish National Museum

The house shaped shrine known as Ranvaik’s Casket is, to my mind, one of the most striking pieces of Irish craftsmanship from the Early Medieval period. The core of the piece is a box carved from solid Yew and decorated with applied copper alloy and tin plates. It is made in the Irish style and thought to date to the 8th century. A runic inscription saying ‘Ranvaik owns this casket’ was added in the 10th century. The front of the casket is decorated with two rectangular plates, surrounded by copper alloy openwork on a tinned background. This grille is composed of six Taus and four L-shapes. The front portion of the lid of the casket is similar, with a single rectangular plate set against an openwork grille of 12 L-shapes. Interestingly, the L-shapes at either end of the lid are paired in a way that resembles a Tau. Youngs (1989) notes that ‘the frame is thickened at each corner to give the impression of L-shaped reinforcing plates’. I would instead argue that while this may have some functional significance, this is also a decorational device, intended to strengthen and reinforce the visual symbolism of the repeated L-shapes of the grilles.

Mounts 229 (Left) & 247 (Right), Shanmullagh, Co. Armagh (Bourke 2010)

Bourke’s (2010) publication of metalwork dredged from the River Blackwater, between Blackwatertown and Lough Neagh contains several pieces germane to this discussion, though I will confine myself to only two the artefacts, where the evidence is clearest. A short, decorated mount (229) from Shanmullagh, Co. Armagh bears two sets of interlocking L-shapes as well as a rectilinear S-shape, similar to the example from the Moylough Belt Shrine. A circular mount (247), possibly from a Book Shrine, and also from Shanmullagh, has 12 L-shapes arranged around the perimeter in interlocking sets of two.

8th century mount. Unprovenanced (Wallace & Ó Floinn 2002)

I would also note an unlocalised heart-shaped shrine mount in the collections of the National Museum of Ireland (Wallace & Ó Floinn 2002, 192). It is thought to be part of the end of the lid of a tomb-shaped shrine, and dates to the 8th century. Alternating between the panels of millefiori are enamelled pairs of L-shapes. Some 16 appear to survive, but it is clear that there were further examples that haven’t fared so well.

Straid or Gleebe pillarstone at Glencolubkille, Co Donegal

Although the examples given above are mostly of metalworking, the L-shaped motif also appears, if less frequently, in other media too. The south-east face of the Straid or Gleebe pillarstone at Glencolubkille, Co Donegal, is essentially a set of three linked squares. The internal corners of these squares contain L-shapes – in false relief in the central and upper square and incised in the case of the lower example. Drumroe, Co Donegal, is part of the same general Glencolubkille complex and here too there is a pillar stone that displays three vertically linked squares. While the bottom square is left blank, the upper two have L-shapes in false relief. While the case may be made that the carving of the L-shapes are secondary to the square-centred Greek cross, I would counter that if they were not necessary they could have been removed. However, they are there and, I would argue, they are there intentionally.

Drumroe pillarstone (Lacey 1983)

While it is clear that much more needs to be done to compile a definitive corpus of the usages of the L-shape, there is ample evidence in what has been presented above to confirm that this is a relatively common motif of Irish Early Medieval art. Although the picture may change with the addition of more examples, it seems clear that the instances where the L-shape is used are usually religious in nature. Within this context, the symbol frequently occurs in conjunction with a variety of christian cross forms, particularly the equal-armed Greek cross, the Tau, and the swastika. Even where the context is not explicitly ecclesiastical, the artefacts (such as the Myklebostad hanging bowl escutcheon) are quite high status and would not be out of place on a wealthy monastic foundation.

Unfortunately, none of this brings us closer to an understanding of what the L-shape may have symbolised to the Early Medieval creators, commissioners, and users of these items. Thus, it is with no small degree of trepidation I now advance my own theory. My first inkling of how to address this issue came when I thought about the Greek term for swastika: Gammadion. It is literally a ‘cross composed of four capital Gammas, or L’s. It is attractive (for me, at least) to think of Early Medieval art being even more full of swastikas than it already is. In this scenario, every L-shape is just a quarter swastika waiting to be put back together. Theologically, the notion is rather sound if we accept that swastikas in the Irish corpus are a form of regular christian cross. However, this argument fails to stack up if we consider that many of these artefacts could easily have borne fully drawn swastikas and that there was no obvious need to break the symbol into its constituent parts. Thus, I would argue that if the L-shape is to be seen as conveying meaning of any kind, it must be a meaning that it possesses within itself and not merely as a subset of the swastika motif. I would argue that the L-shape is indeed to be taken as a Greek Gamma, but specifically in its form as the numeral ‘3’. The surviving corpus of early Irish literature demonstrates a particular fondness for the number three, including the Trecheng Breth Féne (‘A Triad of Judgments of the Irish’)(Kelly 2004). While there may not have been ‘a special Celtic cult of threeness’ it would seem likely that, where used in a christian context, it would refer to the most common and ubiquitous idea of a triumvirate – the Trinity. In this manner it may be seen as a strong religious statement of orthodoxy, affirming the doctrine of the Holy Trinity – the belief that posits the deity as three consubstantial persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – three distinct persons, yet of a single essence or nature.

The two questions to be addressed at this point are the degree to which Greek may have been known in Early Medieval Ireland and the importance of Trinitarianism in the Early Church. The doctrine of the Trinity emerged, first, from the Council of Nicaea in 325AD which cemented the full divinity of Jesus. The resulting Nicene creed used the term homoousios, meaning ‘of one substance’ to articulate the association between Father and Son. These foundations were further built upon by the First Council of Constantinople in 381AD, which ruled in favour of the divinity of the Spirit. This represented the solid establishment of Trinitarianism as Christian orthodoxy, a position it still maintains. Opposing, Nontrinitarian, views were held by Arianism, but faded from its last toeholds with the conversion of the Teutonic tribes to Catholicism by the end of the 5th century. The doctrine was later revived by the Cathars from the 11th century onwards, but never received mainstream support. Commenting on the artistic depiction of the Trinity, Roe (1979, 102) notes that ‘From at least the 7th century the dogma of the Trinity and its veneration finds copious expression in Latin and Irish hymns, prayers and litanies.’ For example, she notes the Lesser Doxology carved on the cross-slab at Fahan Mura, Co. Donegal, that follows the form promulgated after the Council of Toledo in 633: ‘Glory and honour to Father and Son and Holy Spirit’. Roe continues (1979, 103): ‘Notwithstanding so much literary evidence I have failed to recognise any corresponding graphical representation other than the symbolic, be it in manuscript, metalwork or among the subjects carved on the Irish crosses of pre-12th century date [i.e. occasional Dextera Dei and images of doves] ... it is only from the early 13th century that pictorial illustrations of the Trinity come into use in Ireland’.

This presents us with an interesting juxtaposition. On one hand, there is ample evidence for the doctrine of the Trinity being a central tenet of religious faith within mainstream Christianity, including Ireland, from at least the seventh century onward. While on the other hand, there is no corresponding evidence within the artistic output of that time. Compare this to, for example, the large number of surviving representations of the crucifixion – a similarly important christian belief – and the lacuna becomes all the more stark. Seen in these terms, it appears almost inconceivable that the doctrine of the trinity wasn’t depicted in some manner. Central to the argument of whether the L-shape could have fulfilled this role as a symbol of the Trinity is the issue of how much Greek was known in Ireland during the period under review. Recent work by Moran (2011; 2012) seeks to critically evaluate the evidence for a knowledge of the language. He argues that the distinction between the study of Greek in Ireland and the knowledge of Greek among the Irish in Europe may be a false dichotomy, based on the disparity of evidence between the two positions. Instead, he turns to texts of the 16th century, such as O’Mulconry’s glossary, that preserves a significantly older text, dated to the late 7th or 8th centuries. Based on these etymological manuscripts he concludes that ‘The overall picture, therefore, points to some passive knowledge and at best very basic reading ability’. While he does not specifically identify basic numeracy, it seems only logical to conclude that an Early Medieval Irish monk who knew the Greek alphabet would also be acquainted with the basic numbers from 1-10. Interestingly, Moran (2011, 175) notes that only two examples of continuous Greek, written in Greek script, survive from Ireland sources. One of these is the well-known Schaffhausen manuscript, written on Iona and dated to, at the latest, the 8th century. While written chiefly in Insular script, it concludes with the Paternoster in Greek. The other is the Fahan Mura inscription, referenced above. It is of particular significance in this instance as it physically combines a liturgical formula referencing the Trinity together with the Greek language. It takes no great leap of academic faith to imagine that the individual responsible for commissioning this text would have had sufficient grasp of the language to count to 10.

Does any of this mean that the L-shape seen on several high status and religious artefacts of Early Medieval date was definitely a short-hand for the doctrine of the Trinity? The simple, straightforward answer is, of course, no, it does not. However, the evidence presented is particularly tantalising. We have a recurrent symbol, frequently found on high status and ecclesiastical artefacts, often in combination with clear christian symbols. I would contend that if one of these symbols has meaning then all must have some degree of meaning. Based on the similarity of the L-shape to the Greek letter Gamma and number 3, I posit that the symbolism could relate to the Trinitarian doctrine. While the evidence suggests that, like Shakespeare, Early Medieval Ireland possessed ‘less Greek’, it seems that the knowledge level would have been more than sufficient for the connection to be made. Further, it is clear that although Trinitarian belief is well attested in the literature of this period, comparable evidence within thee artistic repertoire is wholly lacking. We may never know if the Gamma, like a fortuitous Tetris block, really does fit this void, but the speculation is half the enjoyment.

Bourke, C. 2010 'Antiquities from the River Blackwater IV. Early Medieval Non-Ferrous Metalwork' Ulster Journal of Archaeology 69, 24-133.

Kelly, F. 2004 'Sir John Rhys Memorial Lecture. Thinking in Threes: The Triad in Early Irish Literature.' Proceedings of the British Academy 125, 1-18.

Lacy, B. 1983 Archaeological survey of County Donegal: a description of the field antiquities from the Mesolithic period to the 17th century A.D. Lifford.

O'Kelly, M. J. 1965 'The Belt-Shrine from Moylough, Sligo' Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 95, 149-188.

Roe, H. M. 1979 ‘Illustrations of the Holy Trinity in Ireland: 13th to 17th centuries’ Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries 109, 101-150.

Moran, P. 2011 ''A Living Speech'? The Pronunciation of Greek Words in Early Medieval Ireland' Ériu 61, 29-57.

Moran, P. 2012 'Greek in early medieval Ireland' in A. Mullen & P. James (eds.) Multilingualism in the Graeco-Roman Worlds. Cambridge, 172-192.

Wallace, P. F. & Ó Floinn, R. (eds.) 2002 Treasures of the National Museum of Ireland: Irish Antiquities. Dublin

Warner, G. F. 1906 The Stowe Missal: MS. D. II. 3 in the Library of the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin. London.

Youngs, S. (ed.) 1989 The Work of Angels: Masterpieces of Celtic Metalwork, 6th-9th centuries AD. London.

I want to pay a heartfelt tribute to all those on social media who have repeatedly helped me with references, images, and given immense support of all kinds. I thank each & every one of you – this post is dedicated to you all! A piece of work of this kind would have been impossible without this crowdsourcing effort & I hope I've not left anyone out (any omission would be unintentional!), but here are some who deserve my thanks: Lorcán J. O'Flannery, Cormac McSparron, Colm Moriarty, Seán Ó Taidhg, Alexandra Guglielmi, Sarah Lang, Gary Sleith, Mary Fitzsimons, Michael Ardill, Helen FitzGerald, Dilean MacSearraigh, Maarten Blaauw, Stephen A Cameron, Angie Fogarty Wickenden, Carl Thorpe, Aidan O'Sullivan, Terry O'Hagan, C J NíChléirigh, David Sandford Ward, Don O'Meara, Haydyn Williams, & Annie Fernback.

In searching for the perfect title for this post, I have repeatedly come back to the lyrics from Smash Mouth’s 1999 hit ‘All Star’:

“She was looking kind of dumb with her finger and her thumb
In the shape of an "L" on her forehead”

Over the course of writing this post it began to occur to me that there may be more to this line than meets the eye. Ostensibly, Smash Mouth are mocking the woman making the ‘Loser’ sign. However, based on the current research, it seems clear that she is affirming her orthodox christian doctrine of the Trinity that holds the deity as three consubstantial persons. In describing her as “looking kind of dumb”, Smash Mouth are deliberately parodying her belief and conspicuously aligning themselves with the doctrine of Nontrinitarianism. As the largest modern christian sects that support this belief include The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Jehovah's Witnesses, it would appear that Smash Mouth are declaring that these – or a similar Nontrinitarian denomination – are correct in their teachings and offer an authentic pathway to salvation. Not only are Smash Mouth occasional purveyors of catchy chart success, they are clearly deep-thinking theologians of the heterodox school.