Thursday, 24 February 2011

Church Ope Cove

I spent some time at Church Ope today, thinking about pirates! Many of the graves still standing there are worn and difficult to decipher, most of them dating from the early to mid 1700s. I was speculating at the origins of the word Ope with a friend, we believe that it's possibly a Scandinavian word originally, meaning opening or inlet, and there are several 'Ope' places on Portland. Looking across the bay from Church Ope, it's easy to see why the Vikings found this approach attractive when they visited Portland many centuries ago. I remember visiting the so called 'pirate graves' as a teenager and finding the words and images on them far more legible than now. The hourglasses on some of the stones fascinate me; an image that I don't associate with gravestones nowadays, yet clearly significant in the past, showing the inevitable passing of time, perhaps also the finite aspect of life. It's a powerful image and it shows how differently time and death were seen in the past. We also spent quite a while wondering who would have been buried in the raised stone graves marked with skull and crossbones. These stones still stand fast and look well constructed. The image of skull/crossbones that we now associate with piracy was once, like the hourglass, an image for death, so may not in fact show a pirate burial. And would a pirate warrant an expensive, respectable burial in the island graveyard? Perhaps not. These ancient graves are nonetheless intriguing and mysterious...


  1. Hi Carol, Church Ope Cove is a fascinating place. The word 'Ope' according to William Barnes is an old local Dialect word for "an opening in the cliffs down to the water's edge". And as most Dorset dialect words are Saxon in origin it is quite possible that it may have been a corruption of the Norse language.

    Interesting you mentioned the graves the image of the skull and crossbones can be found on numerous gravestones and memorials all over Dorset, at St. Laurence's Church, Upwey there are some very fine examples on the tombs. In former times the dead were placed in charnel houses, and after a decent length of time, only the skull and the thigh bones were removed and buried or placed in a vault. In vaults or ossuaries in Europe it is common to see rows and rows of skulls, and similar rows of thigh bones - those were all that were considered necessary for bodily resurrection! Thus the image of the skull and crossbones on tombstones, perhaps surprisingly, symbolise the hope of life after death and not piracy or plague that is sometimes often suggested.

  2. It's interesting that symbols of life/death have altered their meaning for us over the centuries. The hourglass on tombs at Church Ope is still recognisable as a metaphor for our limited mortal lives, but the skull/crossbones, even if you take away the piracy connotation, seems quite a dark image of death, a reminder that people in the past saw death, and the potential for life after death, v differently from us. I've also read that this symbol could perhaps refer to a Knight Templar connection, it's certainly an expensive looking tomb with a strong marble base.