If you had been standing on the edge of a particular trench in Silchester on one day in 1893 and gazing down into the partially excavated shallow well associated with Insula IX (a house oddly angled at 45o to the Roman city road grid), you would have been lucky enough to see a very odd stone emerging some five or six feet down.
Further excavations (the archaeologist’s term for spending long periods in thick mud in back-breaking positions) would eventually reveal the stone shown in the picture, which was thrown in, upside down, possibly to “kill” or ritually close the well.
Those with keen eyesight amongst you might have noticed two things – firstly the stone had two strange sets of markings running vertically up one side, both with a line through the middle. Secondly, under the stone and crushed by it, was a pewter flagon. No other objects of interest were brought up at the time.
And here begins the enigma. The stone’s inscription was in Ogham, an Irish script that spread to Wales, Cornwall and west coast Scotland. Silchester’s Ogham stone was then, and remains today, not only the most easterly Ogham inscription ever found in Britain – but the only one found in England at all! More surprisingly it is one of the very earliest of all Ogham inscriptions, probably dating from the early 400s AD. Around 400 inscriptions have been found to date, with the vast majority from the south of Ireland, particularly Kerry, Cork and Waterford. The largest number outside of Ireland are in Pembrokeshire.
The inscription reads EBICATO[S]/[MAQ]I MUCO[I-], which was translated at the time as ‘of Ebicatus, son of the tribe of’, but recently re-translated as “(The something) of Tebicatus, son of the tribe of N”. The missing word is usually taken to be ‘memorial’ or ‘stone’, but ‘land’ is also possible as Irish Ogham inscriptions were used for familial title to land.
So who was Tebicatus and why was he in Silchester? It is probably a safe guess to assume there was more than one person there who understood Ogham script unless Tebicatus oversaw the writing of his own epitaph . In Wroxeter, a man named Cunorix was commemorated with an Irish language epitaph, but in that case Roman script was used.
It is unlikely that Tebicatus was an Irish raider, and it is uncertain if the inscription implies a settled Irish community in Silchester. Quite possibly he was an Irish trader and the stone was inscribed to commemerate his ownership of a town-house sometime in the fourth or early fifth century.
In the 1980’s the authenticity of the stone was questioned, but there are no known Ogham fakes in Britain. Neither the text, nor the linguistics or even the palaeography of the inscription indicate that the stone is not genuine and most scholars now assume it is authentic. However inscriptions of any sort from this area during late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages are rare, so it isn’t easy to tell.
In 1998 the Ogham stone’s well was re-excavated and two pieces of poorly preserved oak were found, one dates to 130-380AD and the other 320-540AD and it is now believed that the well filling probably dates to sometime not too long after 400AD and marked the closing of the well and house.