Graffiti part two

In May of 2011 I wrote a post about rock inscriptions in two places in the province that are not clearly understood. Since that time I have learned some information about those inscriptions and learned of a new inscription. Most archaeologists would agree that these inscriptions are little more than graffiti.

One of the two inscriptions described in the 2011 post is found just outside the town of St. Lunaire-Griquet. In 1999 while doing archaeology work on the northern Peninsula around the town I was told a rock that was known to people as the Irish Rock or St. Brendan’s Rock.

Irish rock carvings
Irish rock carvings

The rock is south-east of the community of St. Lunaire.  The carvings are sharp and clear and appear as a jumble of straight lines.  The lines are so clear and narrow they appear to have been made by a metal tool.  The rock has been known to the local folks for decades and no one has claimed to have made the lines.  Local legend suggests that the inscription is likely in Ogham, an Early Medieval alphabet used primarily to write the Old Irish language and that is somehow related to St. Brendan.

St. Brendan was supposed to have journeyed to The Isle of the Blessed as described in the ninth century Voyage of St Brendan the Navigator.  Many versions exist of the story that tells of how he set out onto the Atlantic Ocean with several pilgrims searching for the Garden of Eden sometime between 512 and 530 AD. On his trip, Brendan is supposed to have seen St. Brendan’s Island, a blessed island covered with vegetation. He also encountered a sea monster.

While there is no evidence that the inscription is related to St. Brendan, the inscription was made by somebody.  Exactly who, why or when is still unknown. In an effort to find out who made the inscriptions we went to the area and archaeologically tested in the vicinity of the rock. Test pits were dug in an open field behind the rock, on a ridge above the rock and on the same ridge as the rock. Nothing cultural was found in any of the test pits adding to the idea that the inscription was something done quickly, little more than graffiti. More information on this testing can be found in the Provincial Archaeology Office Annual Review, Volume 11 for the 2012 field season.

Testing the ridge next to the rock.
Testing the ridge next to the rock.

The other inscription described in the May 2011 blog post was found on Long Island in Placentia Bay in a former community called Haystack. The inscription is on a rock on the south side of the harbour at the base of the cliff which is in the intertidal zone. The rock is referred to as the Haystack Rock.  At high tide the rock is actually underwater.

Haystack Rock.
Haystack Rock.
Haystack rock with the inscription highlighted
Haystack rock with the inscription highlighted

This inscription has also generated various theories as to who carved it and what it means. The theories range from the scribbling of French fishermen to a mark claiming the land for a Phoenician king.

Last September I was reading on-line archaeology news articles when I came across an article on stone carvings in Wemyss Caves in northern Scotland. This article came with the following picture. The first inscription on the rock looks remarkably like the one on the Haystack rock.

Wemyss Caves inscription.
Wemyss Caves inscription.

I contacted the Save Wemyss Ancient Caves Society to ask about the inscriptions and their interpretations. They put me in contact with archaeologist Douglas Speirs. In his opinion the Haystack rock carving is, like the carving in Wemyss Caves, 19th century graffiti. This is text of his email to me after I had sent him photos of the Haystack rock:

Hi Stephen
Anyway, the incised carving in the Wemyss Caves appears on a panel of rock covered in mainly mid-19th century graffiti, although some of the graffiti is possibly later 18th century. Essentially, the carvings are all individual’s initials and dates… their “tags”, mementos of their visit to the caves incised on the walls…. basically, it’s graffiti in the fashion that you might find  xx loves yy carved on a tree, all enclosed in a heart-shaped escutcheon.
So I would read the Wemyss Caves carving as someone’s monogrammed initials, specifically, a capital letter “T” and a smaller letter “C” all contained within a circular incised cartouche. However, what has confused things is the carver’s excessive use of artistic flourishes, specifically, the decorative use of serifs and the addition of a decorative, serifed cross bar on the “T”. This makes the letter difficult to read and gives it the appearance of a letter “E” or even of a Christian heraldic cross device, similar in form to a Cross Lorraine or a Greek cross crosslet.
It’s possible that the carving is slightly more complex and may be a capital “T” crossed by a capital “L” with a “+” sign leading to a capital “C”. But as said above, what confuses the eye is the use of exaggerated serifs. Serifs are little tails at the extremities of letters. They are common in certain 18th and 19th century fonts, particularly in initial carving.
However, I am quite sure that this is just a mid-19th century monogrammed initial left by a visitor to the Caves. I do not think it has any deeper significance or meaning although I would note that the carving does look cross-like and is similar to crosses known from Templar sites.
As for the date, I would say it is mid-19th century as it is very similar in size, form and style to the scores of other monogrammed initials that appear throughout the caves, many of which include dates. Another dating clue comes from the soot covering on the cave walls. The walls of Well Cave have been blackened by soot from historic fires. However, the incision of this carving has cut through the soot-blackened surface layer to reveal the clean red sandstone beneath. This indicates that it was carved after the burning event. All of the 18th/19th century carvings cut through the historic cave wall soot layer to reveal clean sandstone cuts, hence this carving is unlikely to be of any great antiquity.
Having looked at the photos of your incised carving from Placentia Bay, I can see the parallels. To me, it looks like you have exactly the same sort of thing, ie someone’s initials carved on a rock some time in the earlier or mid-19th century. Indeed, from your photo it looks like you have something like “E” “L” “Mst”… maybe the initials E and L followed by a contracted form of M[a]st[er]… possibly some boat captain (or master) landed in the Bay in 19th century, had a look around and carved his initials?
Best regards

I can certainly see how someone can look at these inscriptions and imagine great things, communications from early explorers or important messages from the past; archaeologists need to have an open mind. Those ideas are much more exciting than the idea that the inscriptions are little more than ‘Kilroy was here’. But archaeology is often about solving puzzles and the best approach to solving puzzles is to follow Occam’s Razor, among competing hypotheses, the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions should be selected or the simplest explanation is usually the right one. There is no physical evidence to suggest these inscriptions are anything beyond the graffiti of Europeans who arrived here post ~1500 ad. To suggest they are anything beyond that requires great assumptions based on no physical evidence. Until, and if, evidence is found to suggest otherwise I will stick with the interpretation that these inscriptions are recent (no more than 19th century) European graffiti.Kilroy

8 thoughts on “Graffiti part two

  1. Last year or year before some people looked at St. Brendan’s Rock and they believed it was an inscription made by another group of visitors (name eludes me) over 2000 years ago. An article was published in local newspaper, Northern Pen, so contact with them or online search will give the details

    1. Thanks Dave Adey. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Burcher (friendly guy, however, I completely disagree with him). He was with us last year when we did the testing in St. Lunaire. Our testing did not help his theories, for which he has zero physical proof.

      1. Yes, plenty. For example, we still don’t know exactly who created these inscriptions or why. There are other sites such as the ring of stones near Northern Bay that just make little sense
        And there are bigger mysteries like how were the precontact Indigenous people who lived in the province related to the Indigenous people who live here today. Some people see direct relationships, some don’t.

  2. Douglas’ interpretation sounds logical. many visitors write/engrave on the rock wall close to a cave or temple or any scenic place to register their enthusiasm or message. Antiquity does not sound to be over a century

  3. Nice research-and yes, the most prosaic explanation is usually closest to the truth (Archaeology Magazine published an article of mine the 1980s about a European Neolithic chopper core found near the Cooper River in South Carolina – came in ship’s ballast from France, not via a neolithic coracle!). Shame tho, Templars make for a more interesting myth! Mark Newell

    1. Indeed, love the Templars idea! But, alas, Kilroy it is.

      There is a report here of neolithic stone tools being found on someone’s property. There is nothing of that antiquity in North America. Turns out they were dumped as a part of ship ballast from Europe.

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