An Irishman's Diary

Mon, Jan 21, 2013, 00:00

‘Irish Gold Found in Gaza” sounds like a ripping yarn. But, 80 years ago, news of an archaeological dig suggested a thrilling and unlikely connection between Bronze Age Co Roscommon and the Palestinian city.

On Wednesday, July 6th 1932, an ad in The Irish Times for the sale at Switzers department store in Grafton Street announced that the “famous “Switzermac” is now offered at specially reduced prices . . . For summer – and particularly for holiday wear – this Feather-weight Raincoat is literally worth its weight in gold”. By felicitous coincidence, gold was also the day’s big news story.

The paper reported that a pair of ancient gold earrings found during an archaeological dig at an Old Testament site in Palestine proved that “at least one Irish export was famous 3,500 years ago”. The earrings were discovered by the famous archaeologist Sir Flinders Petrie during excavations in Gaza “one of the five cities of the Philistines” and had “lain undisturbed since Joshua captured Jericho – some fourteen centuries before the birth of Christ”.

The find was evidence of a “trade connection between Ireland and the Near East in days when Greece’s glory and Rome’s grandeur were still in the womb of time”. A correspondent in London quoted Sir Flinders Petrie’s belief that “Long before the days of Moses, Ireland was the greatest source of gold in Europe”.

An editorial comment in the paper proclaimed exultantly: “Irish gold enriched the thrones of Pharaohs, may have shone in Helen’s hair and may have adorned the pillars of Solomon’s Temples” – and concluded that the remarkable discovery had added “a thousand years to the story of Irish wanderlust”.

The editor’s fancy was clearly tickled because he ended the piece with this flourish: “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle imagined a meeting between Solomon and Ulysses at the Court of King Hiram at Tyre. If he could have anticipated Sir Flinders Petrie’s find, he might have brought an Irishman into the picture”.

But solving the mystery of the Irish gold found in Gaza would have tested the skills of Sherlock Holmes who believed that: “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.” .

The earrings found in Gaza were, indeed, similar to an already well-known pair (reputedly dating from the Bronze Age, and apparently found in Castlerea, Co Roscommon) in the National Museum of Ireland.

Sir Flinders Petrie brought his treasure trove back to England where the Irish gold earrings of Gaza, and other finds, went on public view at University College, London. The event was merely the latest in a string of triumphs for one of Britain’s greatest archaeologists.

Before working in Palestine, Sir William Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) was celebrated for his work as an Egyptologist and had excavated many of the most important archaeological sites in Egypt. These digs, in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, were sponsored by the Egypt Exploration Fund – established by wealthy philanthropists – and the “finds” were distributed to museums in London, Edinburgh, Dublin and other cities. In 1923, he was knighted by King George V for his services to archaeology and Egyptology. Later that decade, Petrie moved to Palestine – funded by the Palestine Exploration Fund – to explore some of the principal biblical sites.

So had Petrie found evidence of ancient Irish trade with Palestine? Sadly not, it now seems. The latest scientific research has revealed that the earrings in the National Museum of Ireland are most likely not Irish after all. It seems their origin may be African and their manufacture of a much later date. The earrings Petrie found in Gaza may have come from the same source – possibly Mali or Sudan.

The current whereabouts of Petrie’s “Irish gold” Gaza earrings is not known. The “Roscommon” earrings, however, are still on display in the National Museum’s Kildare Street, Dublin galleries. The earrings were acquired in the 19th century from a private Dublin collector, Henry Charles Sirr, but the claim that were found in Co Roscommon was not backed by any documentary evidence.

Where did they come from? Who made them? Were the earrings found in Gaza made by the same craftsmen? And, indeed, the age-old question: where did the gold used in the rest of Ireland’s precious pre-historic gold collection come from? Future scholars and archaeologists may find the answers. But, as mining companies well know, finding answers to questions about Irish gold is far from elementary.

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