Cryptic inscriptions

The Catamanus Stone, Anglesey (Wikipedia Commons)
Detail from the Catamanus Stone, Llangadwaladr, Anglesey (Wikipedia Commons)

Living in Wales means living in a landscape where the past is never too far away — eloquent place names, ancient monuments, local legends and folklore. A particular class of monuments are those so-called Dark Age memorial stones inscribed with words, runes, pictograms and abstract patterns that litter the countryside, not just here in Wales but around the north and west of Britain. This repost of a review (it first appeared online in May 2014) looks at one man’s interpretation of what some of these enigmatic inscriptions might mean.

Charles Thomas
Christian Celts: Messages & Images
Tempus Publishing 1998

This is a book that is worth persevering with. Despite its often complex arguments it is shot through with Thomas’ dry wit and apposite asides, and — coming as it does from an acknowledged expert in the field of church history and archaeology — it is also worth taking seriously. He introduces the historical, educative and commemorative contexts that post-Roman inscriptions fitted into; he discusses the insular background in the Celtic-speaking regions of Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Cornwall; and he also delves into the religious implications of some of the texts. But he does more than just give an overview of these enigmatic messages.

Like others, I am sure, who have looked at post-Roman inscriptions on stone in Britain, I’ve often wondered how it was they seemingly lost the art of monumental carving — all those weird ligatured or conjoined letters — no less than ‘proper’ Latin spelling and grammar. If for example we take a famous 7th-century monument, the Catamanus Stone from Anglesey, transcribed this reads


Translated and restored this come out something like

Catamanus, king, wisest, most famous of kings

but classicists have criticised the spelling (ideally sapientissimus and opinatissimus both with additional s), the incomprehensible layout of the text (note the letters A and the chopped-up words as the illustration shows) and the “debased” letter forms (a seemingly clumsy adaptation of half-uncial forms developed not for lithic inscriptions but for manuscripts). Moreover, Catamanus, who died around 625, had a name which notionally should have been *Catumandos, subsequently developing into *Catumannus for monumental inscriptions. Manuscript genealogies give Catman, modern Welsh Cadfan, so these so-called craftsmen apparently couldn’t even get spell his name correctly! Dark Ages indeed! Nowadays this might be ammunition for any critics who would argue that there is a new Dark Age in modern English schooling.

But what if we haven’t got this right? What if these alleged orthographical errors were deliberate, with messages and images concealed in the layout? I have to admit that on first reading Christian Celts I thought that Professor Thomas had lost it and had renegued on his academic standing by joining some school of conspiracy theorists.

This square reads SATOR AREPO TENET OPERA ROTAS from two corners both horizontally and vertically, forwards as well as backwards

After consideration I became less sceptical. Thomas argues authoritatively that the Class II (‘Dark Age’ in common parlance) group of insular inscribed stones follow on from an established classical practice of including puns, anagrams, acrostics, alliteration, consonance, rhymes and letter squares (eg the famous SATOR square), along with mathematical conceits such as letter-number correspondences, and added to these a great number of explicit and sometimes implicit Biblical references. The Catamanus inscription can give us a flavour of some of these processes if it is re-written as a four-line stanza:


This a/b/b/a scheme gives us two words in the first and last lines which include the word ‘king’ or ‘kings’, and two middle lines which are superlatives. There are also letter correspondences in the paired lines: M N U REX (or M N U REG) and PI N TISIMUS.

If the 48 letters are placed in a notional grid, one possible arrangement would give us


with its arresting vertical and diagonal letter correspondences (the letters S and N in particular). This leads us to a concept that I am less easy with, namely that arrangements of letters on a notional grid can lead to the creation of mental images, many of which though plausible certainly depend on the eye of the beholder. Thomas suggests that drawing little frames around similar adjacent letters and half closing the eyes will result in a “kind of Lego-man outline” of a corpse showing sexual excitement, and may be a “cryptic joke, a spoof” by Cadfan’s grandson who reinterred him and raised the memorial stone. While I am leery of Thomas’ exact interpretations of this and other similar mental images, there is no doubt that something odd is going on.

I’ve given this one example in detail as a flavour of the author’s arguments — the Catamus stone in fact later got its own book length treatment, Whispering Reeds, or The Anglesey Catamanus Inscription Stript Bare: A Detective Story (Oxbow Books 2002) — but to do him justice I would need to include more examples and more detail, and that would require a book-length review; much better to read the book itself.

Though I personally enjoy cryptic crosswords of course not everybody does, and so I understand why some may baulk at the convoluted arguments Thomas employs to make his points; but while I’m not convinced by every detail there’s no avoiding the suggestion: if such mind puzzles appeal to a select audience now, surely the same would apply to lively minds of the past? And if it did, could it not have taken the kind of form that is presented in this book?

4 thoughts on “Cryptic inscriptions

Do leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.