Treasure hunters: ‘A crack in the limestone exposed the skull’
Many of Ireland’s finest museum pieces lay undiscovered for thousands of years – until motorway construction or quarrying brought them to archaeologists’ attention
‘For every archaeological discovery that’s found there are probably 10 that aren’t discovered,” Raghnall Ó Floinn, director of the National Museum of Ireland, says. “It was pure luck that in stripping the soil a crack in the limestone exposed the skull.”
It was 25 years ago this year that a quarry manager in Annagh, Co Limerick, happened across a unique fissure in a limestone pavement. Tom O’Donoghue got out of his machine, looked into the crack and saw human remains. Ó Floinn was one of the archaeologists who came on the scene. “All we knew at that stage was that there were a couple of skulls. I think there might have been a mention of some pots, but it was all speculation at that stage,” he says. “We thought that it might have been Bronze Age, which would have been very interesting but relatively common, but this was such a unique find.”
The items from this find and seven other Irish artefacts feature on An Post’s new set of definitive stamps, which is to say its regular series, on sale year round. Selected from Fintan O’Toole’s book and Irish Times series “A History of Ireland in 100 Objects”, they often have intriguing stories, about not just their historical significance but also how and when they were discovered.
After several weeks of excavation Ó Floinn was among the first to see the treasure that lay in an underground cavern at Annagh. A stone ledge around the outside of the oval chamber held decorated pots, plates and a carved piece of deer antler. There were also bear, sheep, cattle and hare bones, a flint knife, an arrowhead, and the remains of four males who lived 5,500 years ago.
“The interesting thing from our point of view was that this was a chamber that was untouched,” Ó Floinn says. “Above ground, court cairns” – burial chambers – “tend to have the stones stripped away, and people have been in and out since they were abandoned, so you get fragments of the remains, fragments of the pottery. It’s very rare to get complete human remains and pottery.”
To many of us wandering around the National Museum of Ireland’s archaeology branch, on Kildare Street in Dublin, some of the artefacts warrant merely a glance. But the people who discovered them understand that the objects are part of something bigger than themselves.
“There’s the excitement of wondering what it is you’re dealing with. But then to see it, it’s part of you in a sense. There is this personal engagement that nobody else gets,” Ó Floinn says. “You’re looking down at a scene that took place almost 6,000 years ago, and you’re one of the first people to see it again.”
Some discoveries are more pressurised than others. The archaeologist Matt Mossop says that his team’s first concern when they unearthed a Mesolithic artefact, 3km into a wet and windy bog in Clowanstown, Co Meath, was how on earth they were going to preserve it.
The team had been working in an area of flooded bog, one of several sites being excavated for the controversial M3 motorway. Earlier in the excavation they had almost lost machinery as it sank into the bog. They had to ferry everything that 3km in wheelbarrows, “through some very tricky bog”, Mossop, who now lives in Cornwall in England, says. “We knew we had to keep this wet, we had to keep it covered. It was a very sensitive job, and I have to say that was the first thing going through our minds: it was a major practical problem of how to keep it intact.”
They had unearthed a fish trap, a 7,000-year-old woven basket preserved in the marshy bog. “We found it by hand rather than machine. If we had done it by machine we wouldn’t have found it at all. There was a lot of luck about it,” he says.
“Wow, this is major”
The find was a surprise. Virtually no organic material from late Mesolithic Ireland had been found previously. “The very first time we found the fish traps there were a couple of bits of what we thought were reeds and common rushes in bog land, so we weren’t too surprised. We thought it was natural,” Mossop says. “Then we started seeing a little bit of the weaving on it and thought, Wow, this is major.”
He adds that trying to convince the archaeological world of the significance of the find proved a challenge, because what they had found hadn’t been seen before. “Normally, if you’re finding bits of wood in a bog, the response you get is, ‘And . . ?’ ” he says. “For the fish traps people were, like, ‘Well, they can’t be organic and from the Mesolithic era, because there aren’t any.. But it is, it really is, and we really had to take this very seriously.”
Some treasures are found through luck: a farmer ploughing a field who spots something unusual in the soil, or a person who stumbles across something on a beach.
Others are the result of years of labour, an experience George Eogan is all too familiar with. Prof Eogan had been excavating at Knowth, in the Boyne Valley, for 20 years when he and his team found a beautiful flint macehead in 1982. Eogan, who is now in his 80s, calls it the greatest discovery of an artefact that he made. “We started excavating in Knowth in 1962,” he says. “What you have at Knowth is a huge mound, and within that are two chambers, back to back. We were excavating in the eastern chamber, and it turned up. It was a great surprise to have found it. I was exceedingly thrilled to have discovered such a wonderful thing.”
Dated to 3300-2800 BC, the macehead was intricately carved with spirals and other shapes using technology that appeared to be vastly ahead of its time.
But even the most experienced of treasure hunters don’t always realise what they’re looking at. “I thought it was a shell when I saw it first,” Eogan says. “But when we did more work, and extracted the object from the soil, it became clear it was a macehead, which is rare enough in Ireland.”
Eogan’s interest in the passage tombs at Knowth remains strong, even 35 years after the discovery of the macehead. “I was last there just before Christmas,” he says. “We’re working on the publications of Knowth. The next volume, which is volume six, will appear next year, published by the Royal Irish Academy. ”
Some of the other artefacts that have been immortalised in stamp form, the Tara torcs and the Broighter boat, were found more than 100 years ago. Today, as people work further and further away from the land, it seems as if the days of the accidental discovery might be limited.
But Matt Mossop is hopeful that greater awareness of archaeology will mean that modern hunters have even more opportunities to find treasure. “I think with the level of work and the expertise that came into Ireland for that 15-year period in the Celtic Tiger era, with all the motorway developments, and with the publications now out, people are seeing how amazing the archaeology was,” he says. “If anything we’re going to see more of these things coming up in the future and have a better understanding of their significance.”
Treasure hunters, on your marks.
STAMPS OF APPROVAL AN POST’S NEW DEFINITIVE SET
The first eight in the series of History of Ireland in 100 Objects stamps went on sale on January 12th. The images on them are based on the Irish Times series and the subsequent book, published with the Royal Irish Academy, in which Fintan O’Toole wrote about 100 objects that each represented a key moment in Irish history. More stamps will appear as the year progresses.
You can find out more about the objects by scanning the icon on the stamp, using a smartphone and the Cee app, or visit 100objects.ie.
The stamps also come in a first-covers edition. Stamp collecting remains a vibrant scene, according to the philatelist Brian Warren, who has been collecting stamps since 1969, and who appears in a video by Bryan O’Brien on irishtimes.com.
Warren’s personal enthusiasm is less for perfectly finished stamps than for rarities, mistakes and “abnormalities”. The prize of his collection is a stamp commemorating the Irish Citizen Army that contained a photographic error. It was spotted after only an hour on sale, after which the stamp was withdrawn.
An Post’s ninth definitive stamp series, selected from A History of Ireland in 100 Objects and published in association with The Irish Times, the Royal Irish Academy and the National Museum of Ireland, is now on sale in post offices. You can find out more about the objects, and get school lesson plans, at 100objects.ie