An Early Monastery
On the west bank of the River Teifi, St Dogmael’s Abbey was a Tironian monastic foundation of the 12th century on the border between the early Welsh kingdoms of Dyfed and Ceredigion. I have discussed the ruins here. Before that, it had been a Welsh monastic foundation – Llandudoch – about which we know precious little other than that it was raided by Vikings in AD 988. Seaborne raiders would only target places of wealth and power, so a Viking raid suggests Llandudoch was a religious site of importance by at least the late 10th century.
What kind of monastic site was it? Sadly, the only physical evidence surviving for us to discern the importance of the site in the pre-Norman era is a collection of slabs and pillars assigned by Professor Nancy Edwards to the 8th or 9th-centuries. I will discuss these in a separate entry. These are now numbered by Edwards as P111-117 but you cannot see them as a group outside of the records in her Corpus publication. This is because they are split between St Thomas’s church, the visitor centre at St Dogmael’s and the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff.
Introducing the Sagranus Stone
However, one stone pushes the significance of the locality back earlier still, to the 5th or early 6th century: P110 the Sagranus stone. It can be seen in St Thomas’s church, taking pride of place at the far west end of the building. Made of ‘spotted’ dolerite from Carn Meini, the material has clearly travelled many miles to get to its current location. It is a distinctive quadrangular-section pillar.
This particular monument is not just any early medieval stone and not simply the oldest stone from the site. It also has a special importance for the history of scholarship on early medieval stones in Wales. This is because it is actually the first-ever Welsh monument to have its ogam inscription discerned!
Biography of the Sagranus Stone
Like many early medieval stones, it has a complex biography of use and reuse that is interesting in itself. Edwards records that it is first mentioned as standing in the abbey ruins in the 17th century. This is intriguing; how would a stone like that be ‘standing’ amidst the ruins unless it had been moved or relocated already? It makes me wonder where it had been during the church’s active use: within the church, or cloister? Or had it been elsewhere?
Anyway, at some time after the 17th century, it became used as a footbridge, and then as a gatepost. Finally, it was incorporated into a wall beside the vicarage. Its removal from the wall broke it in two and it was moved before 1917 to its current location within the church of St Thomas. Today, the inscriptions have been chalked to make them clearer for visitors and it is at least protected within the church, even if separated (as mentioned above) from the other, later stones, making it difficult for visitors to fully apprehend its importance for the history of the site and for Wales and western Britain as a whole. I’m not sure it is best practice to chalk the stones, but at least it helps visitors to read the text… I doubt all scholars would agree and approve…
The Sagranus Stone’s roman and ogam inscriptions
The text reads in Latin in roman script: ‘of Sagranus son of Cunotamus’ and the adjacent ogam script reads in Brittonic or Irish ‘of Sagragnus son of Cunatamus’. Like many bilingual stones, the roman and ogam text run in parallel down the stone and one almost imagines that the priority here is to conform to a vertical reading for each, from top to bottom.
Date and Context
Dating to the 5th or early 6th centuries AD, it is one of only 17 bilingual stones known from south-west Wales. Sagranus is an Irish name but Cunotamus is British. These two dimensions – two scripts and languages and two names of different linguistic origins, suggests a stone raised to speak across linguistic and perhaps socio-political divisions, and elite kin groups who operated intermarriage across this linguistic divide.
What was its function? It might have marked the grave of Sagranus or a household burial plot within a cemetery. It might have equally had a landscape location, beside a road or upon a boundary. Either way, the text and material form suggests that the memorial asserted relationships of father and son, between the living and the dead, and between place and power.
The vast majority of early inscribed stones are found at what later become church sites. This needn’t necessarily mean a church was already situated at these locations even if these stones were raised amidst Christian or Christianising communities with a knowledge of Latin literacy. It might instead mean that they were located upon family burial grounds and perhaps at other multi-functional aggregation points in the landscape which later became church sites. See also my discussion of the Nevern and Bridell too.
Evidently the locality around the St Dogmael’s abbey site was a key node in the landscape, on a tidal estuary and between territorial divisions later fossilised in the cantrefs and kingdoms of the region. It would be fascinating if more evidence of early medieval settlement and burial were to be found in and around the abbey ruins in the future…
In summary, we have an early medieval site only known through a collection of stones. These stones are disparate in date and now out of context. They are also difficult for present-day views to appreciate, distributed across three sites of display, two in St Dogmaels, one in Cardiff many miles away. It is perhaps unsurprising that they are perhaps not appreciated for the important heritage resource that they are!