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Unveiling Coventry’s Ogham Stone – Treasured archaeological find to be displayed at the Herbert

A mysterious inscribed stone found in a garden in Coventry during lockdown is set to be displayed for the first time at ‘Collecting Coventry’, an exhibition at Herbert Art Gallery and Museum.

The distinctive stone will join hundreds of artifacts at the ‘Collecting Coventry’ exhibition, showcasing 75 years of collecting efforts in the city.

Whilst the country was in lockdown in May 2020, Coventry local Graham Senior was passing the time by gardening, when he came upon an unusual looking rock. The rock, at around 11cm in length, appeared to have several horizontal incisions along the side. Senior shared his discovery with the Portable Antiquities Scheme, also known as, who confirmed that the stone was inscribed with ogham, an Early Irish language dating back over 1,600 years.

Ogham was an alphabet used in the Early Medieval period primarily for writing in the early Irish language. Before the people of Ireland began using manuscripts made from vellum, they used the ogham writing system to inscribe on materials such as stone. Ogham is highly unusual among world writing systems, consisting solely of parallel lines in groups of 1-5. The stones provide insight into the Irish language before the use of the Latin insular script.

The earliest ogham inscriptions date back to the 4th and 6th centuries AD. Over 400 known ogham stones and fragments have survived, found predominantly in Ireland and on the Welsh coast. The main function of ogham stones is still uncertain. However, some historians believe that they were used for legal purposes in land disputes, as they are often found on or near boundaries of kin and bearing the names of ancestors.

The ‘Collecting Coventry’ exhibition (11 May 2024 - 27 April 2025), explores the history of collections managed by Culture Coventry Trust, from the founding of the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum in 1949 and Coventry Transport Museum in 1980 to the present day. ‘Culture Coventry’ looks after thousands of objects which make up the City of Coventry collections. The exhibition encompasses four rooms which showcase the three core themes of the collections: Human History, Visual Art, and Natural Sciences. Most of the rooms are in the style of a museum store, where the objects are kept when not on display, giving visitors a sense of being behind the scenes at the museum.

Graham Senior, who found the stone said: “I found the stone while I was gardening during the lockdown in May 2020.  It caught my eye as I was clearing an overgrown part of the garden. At first, I thought it was some kind of calendar. Finding out later it was an ogham stone and over 1,600 years old was incredible.”

Teresa Gilmore, Finds Liaison Officer for East Staffordshire & North West Midlands said: “The first contact I had from the finder was via a phone call where he notified me of his prehistoric calendar stone. On receiving a photo of the stone, I got in contact with Katherine Forsyth at University of Glasgow who confirmed that it was definitely ogham and a very interesting find. The script is that of an early style, most likely 5th to 6th Century but possibly as early as 4th Century. The inscription reads: MALDUMCAIL / S / LASS. The first part of the inscription relates to a person's name: Mael Dumcail. The second part is less certain. As to why the object was deposited in Coventry and what it originally functioned as, are still research questions to be answered.”

Ali Wells, Curator at Herbert Art Gallery and Museum said: “I was delighted when Graham offered to donate his incredible find to the museum. As the Herbert only collects in the city of Coventry boundary it’s rare that someone finds something a nationally significant as the Ogham stone. We might never know how Mael lost the stone and how it ended up in a garden in Coventry, but I hope future research will reveal more about its story. Visitors can see it on display in (upcoming/new exhibition) ‘Collecting Coventry’ until 27 April 2025. There are also 3d replicas of the stone as it was the first object to be scanned by our Media team.”