A history of Ireland in 100 objects


Petrie Crown, second century:The Vikings didn’t wear horned helmets. The Iron Age Irish did. There are two outstanding examples, the “Cork horns” (at Cork Public Museum) and the Petrie Crown, so called because it came from the collection of the 19th-century antiquarian George Petrie.

 Petrie either did not know or did not record where it was originally found. But it is a remarkable object, and it hints at the emergence of a kind of person who would have a long presence in Irish life: the cattle baron.

The “crown” consists of a sheet of bronze with a pair of highly decorated discs attached to its front. Each disc supported a conical horn, only one of which survives. The discs and horn are magnificently decorated with curved trumpet shapes, some terminating in stylised birds’ heads. This complex bronze arrangement was then sewn on to a leather or textile band to form a head-dress. The very high quality of the decoration and riveting suggests that this was worn by a particularly powerful figure.

This power may have derived to a large extent from links to Roman Britain. Bull cults, as we have seen, were long established in Ireland, but the horned head-dresses are a new phenomenon, utilising new casting technologies and showing off the high-end design of the European Iron Age culture known as La Tène. It is hardly accidental that these innovations are linked to the idea of a leader who associates himself visually with the wealth generated by cattle.

The Roman general Agricola remarked that Ireland could be taken with “one legion and a moderate number of auxiliaries”. It is possible that some kind of invasion was attempted. The Roman poet Juvenal records that “we have taken our arms beyond the shores of Ireland”. If so, the invasion was either beaten back or the Romans decided that Ireland wasn’t worth the effort of conquest.

They did, however, trade with Ireland. The historian Tacitus notes of the island in the first century that “the interior parts are little known, but through commercial intercourse and the merchants, there is better knowledge of the harbours and approaches”. The Irish imported goods from the Roman world, as we have seen from the Egyptian necklace in the Broighter hoard. There are Roman objects from the royal site of Tara and even the skull of a Barbary ape from Navan Fort, in Co Armagh. But the trade went both ways. Roman Britain, with its cities and standing army, offered a thriving marketplace.

“The development of urban centres,” says Eamonn Kelly of the National Museum of Ireland, “means there’s demand for cattle on the hoof. The Roman army consumed large amounts of leather. They were importing hide, and they were probably importing butter as well.” The often huge amounts of butter buried as votive offerings in Irish bogs point to a thriving cattle economy. Those who can exploit these trade connections come from the rich grazing lands, and they will go on to form the core of Ireland’s medieval dynasties. “Everything in early Ireland is cows.”

With thanks to Eamonn Kelly

Where to see itNational Museum of Ireland – Archaeology, Kildare Street, Dublin 2, 01-6777444, museum.ie