Ancient Ogam in California


Steve Bartholomew

For this study I am primarily indebted to Truman N. Bernal of Earth Spirit Preserve,  It was he who originally told me about this place.

Recently I had the privilege of examining at first hand an ancient Ogam inscription in Northern California. This is the third of these inscription sites I have been able to examine in some detail. There is every reason to believe that many others exist on the West Coast of the United States, some of them not yet discovered.

This particular Ogam glyph is found on a large rock located some 30 miles from the town of Laytonville, and 11 miles from Highway 101. I will refer to it as the Laytonville stone, since that is the nearest town. It rests just off a dirt road which is heavily traveled by local residents and by logging trucks. The stone itself has been well known for a long time, as is evident from the large quantity of modern graffiti. (There is one inscription dated 1907.)

The Laytonville stone seems, in fact, to be a magnet for graffiti, both ancient and modern and from different cultures. Oddly, there are other stones in the area of equal size and equally accessible, but with no inscriptions at all. Looking at the Laytonville stone is to peer down through layers of history. The most obvious is the modern work. This is readily distinguished because the inscribed lines are not nearly as deep as the older glyphs, nor nearly as eroded. This is an extremely hard type of stone, nearly indestructible. Even the hundred-year-old graffiti looks fresh.

The next important feature seen is the large number of "cupules." Cupules are a characteristic of Native American culture in this area. The Laytonville stone is located in the Wailakki tribal area. The cupules here are of a smaller size than on the other two stones I have examined, which were in Pomo areas. These were evidently used in some type of religious ritual or magical practice, the nature of which is obscure.

There is also Native American "picture writing." In two places we find a zigzag glyph which has the meaning "a journey." This is an almost universal pictographic script found in the Western United States and is closely related to Indian sign language.


So far, the Laytonville stone presents no problems. But then we come to the Ogam.

Now, it is amazing even to myself that Ogam inscriptions can exist on the West Coast. For those unfamiliar with the subject: Ogam (or Ogham) is an alphabet which orthodox scholars insist was invented in Ireland during Roman times. This idea is easily disproved, since there are much older examples of Ogam in existence, from various places in Europe and elsewhere. The Irish themselves believed the alphabet originated somewhere in the Middle East, which is plausible given its resemblance to cuneiform.

Ogam consists of letters formed of straight lines, which of course are easiest to carve on rock. The Book of Ballymote, the Book of Leinster, and other medieval texts present a number of variations of the alphabet, many of these of later invention. The type that concerns us is the oldest and simplest form, which is the kind discovered most often in America.

Many years ago, Dr Barry Fell demonstrated that Ogam writing is found in many parts of the Eastern United States, such as New England, West Virginia and Tennessee. Later investigators turned up examples from British Columbia to Southern California. Although Dr Fell was able to translate some of these, even he was somewhat at a loss to explain how they got this far west. He suggested that Native Americans might have learned this kind of writing from Irish and Gaelic traders back East, and carried it west.

Personally, I have no explanation nor am I about to present one. The fact is, Ogam inscriptions exist in California. Before a theory evolves, we must deal with the facts.

As to the Laytonville stone: Most of the writing here is located on a reddish part of the rock, which resembles jasper and seems to be the hardest, most durable surface. In spite of this, the Ogam is severely weathered. (It was also abraded more deeply into the stone in the first place.) Whoever put this inscription here must have believed he had an important message to pass on. Unfortunately, the erosion has gone so far that many of the letters are no longer readable. Judging by the degree of weathering, compared to other inscriptions on the same rock, this Ogam inscription may well be more than a thousand years old.


This section (figure 1.) shows how extremely weathered some of the glyphs have become. Some of them have completely disappeared. Their degree of erosion suggests extreme age. However, this particular glyph is still recognizable as a style called "ladogam" in the Book of Ballymote. "Lad" is a Gaelic word meaning a canal or channel. The Ogam seems to flow between two lines, as if down a stream. There are other examples on this rock, some of them better preserved. (Figure 2.)


Figure 2 is also an example of "divided" Ogam, with a vertical line separating the left from the right half. While the left half is too badly spalled or weathered to be readable, the right half may be read as "M-G." The slanting lines suggest they should be read from left to right.


In figure 3, note the peculiar cross, above and to the left. It may be an incomplete swastika. Below that is a right angle which separates three vertical strokes beneath it. The strokes converge toward the top, which is one way of indicating the letter "," in Ogam.


Figure 4 is a view of one of the oldest inscriptions, on the reddish, jasper-like rock. We can distinguish the letters "M-G-M-M." There is a long, curving line separating the left half of the glyph from the right. Unfortunately, the weathering is too severe to make out many other letters. But letters they are – that is the point here. They are not random scratches. The Ogam alphabet is divided basically into three groups of five letters each. There is usually a horizontal base line, either drawn or implied by position of the other strokes. Each letter can have from one to five strokes: above, below or across the base line. The glyphs on the Laytonville stone consistently follow these rules. Each glyph that remains legible can be found in the Book of Ballymote.


Unfortunately, in focusing on Ogam, this author failed to pay sufficient attention to some of the other glyphs. Figure 5 represents what may well be a solstice marker. Regrettably, I did not notice it until later, going through my photographs. If I had, I would have taken an accurate compass bearing. Note the right angle cross representing the four cardinal directions, with a 45 degree angled line in the lower right quadrant. I will have to return to the site to take a bearing. But then, these sacred places nearly always require more than one visit!

Our question persists: How did the Ogam script reach the west coast of North America? Did the Indians learn it from somewhere else? Or did Celtic traders reach this far west? Neither scenario is impossible. Sailors of Saint Brendan the Navigator or Prince Madoc of Wales could have found the mouth of the Rio Grande River and followed it to New Mexico, then made an overland trek into Southern California. It might have taken years to get that far, but they had time.

There were many Indian tribes with oral histories of contact with white people before Columbus. One example is found in the book "Tribes of California," by Stephen Powers, originally published in 1877. He quotes from an A.W. Chase, writing in Dana’s American Journal of Science and Arts, July 1873. Chase explains the origin of the word "wogie" or "wa-geh," a word used by many tribes in Northern California and Oregon to mean "white man."

The story was related to Chase by the Chetko Indians who, then as now, lived near Brookings, Oregon. According to the Chetko, they had originally migrated there from the far north, in canoes. Here they found two other tribes, one of them a warlike race resembling themselves. Conflict resulted and the Chetko won, driving off or exterminating the enemy. However, the other strange tribe was not warlike. In fact, they refused to fight. They were described as small in stature, of a mild disposition, and white. They were called "Wogies."

The Chetko chose to enslave the Wogies, forcing them to work to provide food and shelter as well as manufactured items such as baskets, robes, and canoes. In the end, the Chetko became fat and lazy. One night after a grand feast, the Wogies quietly packed up and left, never to be seen again. But years later, when the first American miners and traders appeared, the Indians at first supposed the Wogies had returned.

Who were the Wogies? Could they have been a lost band of Celts from Wales or Ireland? Or were they perhaps the Jomon people from Japan? In places like the Laytonville stone, silent Ogam writing yet speaks to us from a distant age, posing more questions than it answers. But we will never find the answers unless we ask.



References: Tribes of California, Stephen Powers, University of California Press, 1976.

Epigraphic Society Occasional Papers, Volume 22, Page 87, Pub. 1993: The Ogam Scales of the Book of Ballymote, Barry Fell.

Ancient American, Volume 4, Issue 27: Baby Rock, Ogham in California by this author.

The Rocks Begin to Speak, LaVan Martineau, KC Publications, 1976