Bog bodies and frogs in alcohol: meet the man with the keys to our past
The director of the National Museum, Raghnall Ó Floinn, talks about his plans to innovate in a frugal age and how to deal with kids wielding Bronze Age swords
Gallagh Man, a bog body discovered in Co Galway, at an exhibition in the National Museum. Photographs: Matt Kavanagh
Raghnall Ó Floinn: ‘There should be free entrance to museums. That’s something I would defend to the death.’ Photograph: Aidan Crawley
The Natural History Museum. Photograph: Frank Miller
The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife. Courtesy National Gallery of Ireland
The new director of the National Museum of Ireland sits in his pleasant modern office and contemplates his empire. There is the core archaeological collection, on Kildare Street in Dublin; the Natural History on Merrion Street; Decorative Arts and History at Collins Barracks; and at Turlough Park, Co Mayo, Country Life.
Whatever way you look at it, that is an awful lot of heritage. “We have everything from insects through to aircraft,” says Raghnall Ó Floinn. Gold jewellery and costume jewellery. Chinese porcelain and Viking swords. Frogs in alcohol and 19th-century wallpaper. How many objects does the museum have in its care?
“Pick a number,” he says. Four million, I’ve read somewhere. He smiles. “Yes. If you count every single shard of pottery and every single postage stamp. Which you don’t – although it’s still material that we have to look after and answer for. We reckon that our core collections are of the order of 700,000.”
Ó Floinn got hooked on archaeology when, at the age of 15, he worked for a week on the excavation of Dublin High Street with Breandán Ó Ríordáin, one of his predecessors as director.
Ó Floinn studied geography and archaeology at University College Dublin, followed by an MA in medieval pottery that he funded by working part time at the Wood Quay excavations, on the south bank of the Liffey in Dublin. He joined the museum as a field archaeologist. He still recalls his digging days with immediacy and enthusiasm.
Ó Floinn and a colleague were sent to Co Westmeath once to investigate a Bronze Age cist burial. “When a farmer is ploughing, the capstone is often dislodged and the soil falls in – so effectively you’re trying to make sure you don’t disturb the skeleton and the vessel underneath,” he says. That’s what they were doing when Ó Floinn noticed another large slab across the field.
“We lifted the slab and there, completely undisturbed, were two Bronze Age food vessels with a pile of cremated bone in a perfect kind of cone, which had been placed there 4,000 years ago. The idea that you were the first to look in there in 4,000 years was incredible.”
Fascination with bog bodies
This spine-tingling sensation is turned up to 11 with bog bodies, which hold a particular fascination, not just for archaeologists but for the general public. Which, Ó Floinn says, is understandable. “The whole idea of being able to stare into the face of someone who lived so many years ago – you don’t even need a facial reconstruction to be able to see the fingernails and toenails and the contours of the body – is astonishing.”
He says he maintains a scientific detachment about whether it is appropriate to disturb human remains and then store or display them in a museum, but he acknowledges that many people – including his wife – take a very different view. Much depends on the age of the body, he says. Bog bodies such as that of “Cashel man”, which dates back 4,000 years, offer untold opportunities for study. More recent bodies – Famine victims or unbaptised children – are a different matter. “In cases like that there has been no question but that they would be reburied.”