Wales won at rugby this evening. So to celebrate, here is a blog about a fabulous Dark Age doozy from South-West Wales.
I am referring to the 5th-century stone from Bridell, Pembrokeshire. I visited this monument over a decade ago, but it was great to be back as I travelled back home from a short holiday.
Discussed by Nancy Edwards in her A Corpus of Early Medieval Inscribed Stones and Stone Sculpture in Wales. Volume II. South-West Wales the Bridell stone (P5) might be in situ, perhaps providing a communal focus within an early medieval cemetery context long before this location acquired a church. Hints in support of this scenario come from long-cist graves having been found in the field adjacent to the church. The stone is located on the south site of St David’s church, Bridell, in the far north-east of Pembrokeshire.
The stone might have been originally a prehistoric standing stone, but there is no independent evidence to support this. It is dated by its ogam inscription running up the north-east corner of the stone which has been translated as:
‘of Nettasagri son of the kindred of Briaci’
The name is an Irish compound meaning (possibly) ‘champion of a leader’. Also, Edwards discusses how this is the only ogam monument from Wales using the phase maqi mucoi (‘son of the kindred of’). Bridell is one of the five (8%) of early inscribed stones from south-west Wales with ogam appearing on its own without Roman lettering. This might suggest an early – fifth century – date for the monument. The angle used to incise the ogam is uneven and so the inscription has to adapt a serpentine path up the stone’s edge.
The inscription suggests this monument was commemorative in function, perhaps by the elites and followers of Irish descent (Deisi) who may have settled in North Pembrokeshire. While early inscribed stones are often regarded as retrospective in their commemorative formulae – alluding to immediate lines of descent, it is important to stress that kindred allusions of this kind simultaneously allude to past, present and future familial links. Moreover, the stone might be raised over a grave or to commemorate an individual, but their identity is clearly linked to the kindred and their perceived status. Perhaps this stone served to provide a locus for burial and commemoration of the kindred as a whole and, over time, down the generations following its inscription it gave a modest but significant landmark for many generations.
We can only speculate how long the ogam remained legible and whether it was painted and re-painted over the decades following its inscription. Sadly, the stone’s early medieval biography has only two phases inscribed on it and the cross is regarded as later in date. This site clearly became, at some point in the early medieval period, a church site. Perhaps associated with the site’s dedication and consecration as a church, there is an equal-arm cross within a circle appended to the monument. Edwards tentatively dates this cross to the 9th or 10th centuries AD. However, she concedes there are no close parallels and so dating is uncertain to say the least and her dating is left unexplained.
Finally, I would like to refer to how the monument sits in relation to the 19th and 20th-century gravestones surrounding it. There is clearly a distinction between the recent and ancient and no attempt to emulate its rough form and slanting angle. Yet the recent dead have their bodies and memorials accumulate themselves around this striking early medieval monument in a comparable way perhaps to its original intended function. Therefore, it does sit as a lithic ancestor and precedent for the memorialisation of the post-medieval and contemporary dead in this premier churchyard location. Notably, the graves around it do not attempt to out-compete it; they remain lower in height and thus respectful (whether deliberately or not) of its presence.