Medieval Ink Pen Testifies to the Rise of Secular Literacy in Ireland

medieval ink pen made of bone and copper
A medieval composite pen made out of animal bone and a copper alloy was found in an 11th-century settlement in Ireland. The tool’s secular setting is a rare find, as literacy in Ireland was generally associated with the church. Michelle Comber

Archaeologists excavating a medieval stone fort in western Ireland have discovered what they say is the oldest known ink pen ever found in the country. The writing tool, made of a hollow bone barrel with a copper-alloy point, or nib, was unearthed in an 11th-century layer of sediment at Caherconnell Cashel in County Clare, reports Pat Flynn for the Irish Independent

A team led by Michelle Comber, an archaeologist with the National University of Ireland (NUI), Galway, made the discovery as part of the Caherconnell Archaeological Project. Built in the late 10th century, the settlement remained in use through the beginning of the 17th century, housing a succession of wealthy local landowners. While most evidence of early literacy in Ireland comes from sites connected to the Christian church, the cashel, or ringfort, was a secular institution, reports Shane O’Brien for Irish Central. Its residents built their wealth through farming and trade.

The find “exceeded all expectations, revealing the tantalizing prospect of an advanced secular literacy in 11th-century Ireland,” says Comber in a statement.

The pen’s construction is distinct from the feather quills more commonly used by medieval Europe’s literate minority. Historian and calligrapher Tim O’Neill notes that it may have been used for drawing fine lines, which would have been more difficult to produce with a standard feather quill.

“It would have worked well for ruling straight lines to form, for instance, a frame for a page,” he says in the statement.

Other discoveries made at the fort suggest that its occupants participated in fine craftworking and metalwork, as well as playing games and making music, writes Ian Randall for the Daily Mail. Comber says these individuals may have used the pen to record family lineages and trade transactions.

Medieval Ink Pen Testifies to the Rise of Secular Literacy in Ireland
Caherconnell Cashel housed many wealthy landowners between the 10th and 17th centuries. Michelle Comber

Though the artifact is the earliest complete example of a composite pen found in the British Isles, researchers know of both older and more recent related designs. During the Roman occupation of Britain (roughly 43 to 410 C.E.), people sometimes used pens made entirely of a copper alloy. In England, archaeologists have also found both copper-alloy nibs without bone barrels and vice versa. These specimens typically date to between the 13th and 16th centuries. 

The unusual find at Caherconnell led the team to question whether the artifact could have actually been used for writing. Adam Parsons, an archaeologist with Blueaxe Reproductions, which specializes in creating copies of historic artifacts, constructed a replica. Testing confirmed that the object would’ve worked as a dip pen.

Caherconnell Cashel is part of a region known as the Burren along Ireland’s western coast. Excavations at the site have uncovered not only remnants of the medieval settlement but also artifacts dated to as far back the Neolithic period.

“The excavations are beginning to build a picture of how life developed in a part of Ireland largely uninterrupted by intrusive groups such as the Vikings and Anglo-Normans,” notes NUI Galway on the Caherconnel Archaeological Project’s website. “The richness and excellent preservation of the archaeological record in this area hold enormous potential.”

Archaeology Ireland magazine published a full account of the pen’s discovery in its winter 2021 issue.

According to Colleen Thomas of the Library of Trinity College Dublin, writing was an essential aspect of monastic life in early medieval Ireland. Scribes trained by copying their mentors’ work, inscribing words into wax tablets with a metal stylus. Eventually, scribes graduated to pen and parchment, using feather quills to copy existing devotional texts or author their own.

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