Unearthing the long history of our island, one object at a time
We can learn astonishing things from an old object, but what makes it pulse with life is the idea of the people who touched it and were touched by it. In a new series, FINTAN O'TOOLEuses 100 objects to reveal the fascinating history of Ireland
WITH THE TECHNOLOGIES at our disposal we can reproduce almost any object with absolute precision. We can turn worn or smudged surfaces into clear and vibrant images. We can recast fragments as unified entities. Reproductions can have the same feel and form as the original. Some people who run museums have concluded that in the digital age we are no longer interested in mere inert thingsand must be immersed in experiences.
And there is plenty of good theory to justify this belief. Why should we make a fetish of an object just because it is old? Why should we imagine that the idea of an original means anything in a culture of mass reproduction? Isn’t there something primitive – or, on the other hand, something unhealthily consumerist – about treating objects with reverence? Is there any real difference between the desire to see the original of, say the Book of Kells and the creepy compulsion that makes someone pay a year’s salary to buy one of Elvis’s used hankies on eBay?
There’s a good, sober, respectably scientific answer to these questions. Unlike reproductions or digital images, original objects are not static. They contain secrets that can be unlocked with ever newer techniques. We are learning astonishing things from old objects, things we never thought they could reveal – exactly how old they are, where they came from, what their own histories might be. No one knew even 20 years ago that it would be possible some day to use tiny fragments of an ancient object to figure out how old it is or that the chemicals in the teeth of a body in a grave might tell us where the owner of an ancient sword had spent his days.
But beyond this eminently rational excuse is an irrational force. You feel it every time you look at something in a museum, find it interesting, and then, looking at the label, see the words, “This is a copy. The original is . . .” There is a deep and entirely unreasonable disappointment. You know that what you are seeing is probably better, clearer, more whole than the original. But it is not the thing itself. And that disappointment tells us something important about the magnetic attractiveness of historic objects.
An old object does not carry such a potent charge just because of the things that can be reproduced so well with our technologies: the form, the materials, the decorative skills. What makes it pulse with life is the idea of the people who touched and were touched by it. It is the hands that made it, the eyes that feasted on or feared it. It is the simple, awe-inspiring thought that this thing connects me to my ancestors. I may never fully understand it, especially if it comes from the very distant past, but in the moment I encounter it I am sharing some tiny fragment of the lives that it touched.
This sense of sharing something with the past isn’t entirely abstract. Many of the things that survive from the past had an aura of magic about them. Sometimes they were created specifically to generate that feeling of awe. Sometimes they acquired it through their association with momentous events.
The magic they have for us may spring from different considerations – that they are old and famous – but it is at least analogous to what our ancestors may have felt in their presence. If you look at a magical jade axe from 6,000 years ago the feeling you get is still the feeling it was meant to evoke, that of being in the presence of a thing that represents a force beyond things, something large and mysteriously evocative. The Greeks had a word for it: charis,the allure of objects.
OBJECTS CAN PUT us in touch with the past in this direct and immediate way. But they also help us to a more complex understanding of the past. There is a certain paradox that surrounds them. They seem precise and fixed, literally tangible. When so much about the past – especially the Irish past – is contested, physical things seem to provide secure anchors in history. They ought to make things simpler. And yet, when you actually examine any object, this apparent simplicity quickly falls away.
Interesting objects tend to provoke more questions than they can answer. There are the simple questions: why and when were they made? How were they used? These often turn out not to be quite so simple, especially with objects of great antiquity. In the case of Ireland, where much of prehistory is still obscure, early objects sometimes serve to tell us how much we don’t yet know. They give us glimpses of a tangible certainty only to keep it beyond our grasp.
And beyond the basic questions is always the larger one: what did this thing meanwhen it was made? As the dates come closer to our own it becomes easier to attempt an answer, because the culture becomes more like our own, and we have so much more information. But the farther we reach back in time the more we are reminded of the inescapable fact that an object is mute without its context.
Whether it’s a silver tea urn from Georgian Dublin or an illuminated page of the Book of Kells, a button from Viking Dublin or a gold disc from the bronze age, an Ib Jorgensen dress or a stone-age mace head from Knowth, it carries its own codes of meaning. It expresses some kind of power, religious, political or economic. It suggests a place in the world: that of its owner and that of those whom it was intended to impress.
Objects don’t just havestories; they tellstories. But what they said to their contemporaries may be very different from what they now say to us.
FOR THIS VERY reason historians would tend to be sceptical of the idea of a history of Ireland in 100 objects. History is based above all on documents: the written word reveals not just actions but intentions. Texts open up contexts. Mere objects, on the other hand, are seldom eloquent in themselves. The fish trap with which we start our series on this page, for example, is an amazing object – but only if someone tells you what it is and how extraordinary is its survival. On its own it looks like a bunch of sticks stuck in a slab of turf.
No one would dispute this. Even archaeologists will stress that the objects they uncover, however beautiful, are of little use without their wider context, a context that is usually provided by the scientist or the historian. Yet there are at least two good reasons for starting with objects and using them to sketch the development of human societies and cultures on this
One is the very quality of immediacy that a significant object carries. The digital age we inhabit seems to make physical things less important, but it does the same for time and sequence. On the internet everything seems to exist together simultaneously. The idea of chronology, of the way one thing follows another, is losing its grasp. Teachers, even at third level, will attest to the way in which even very bright students have a vague notion of the chronology of historic events.
Objects, so striking in themselves, can be arranged so that the unfolding of change can be experienced tangibly, especially if, as we hope, readers take the opportunity to go and see them for themselves. (Apart from anything else, the National Museum of Ireland and the other great repositories of striking objects are a great free resource in lean times.)
The other good reason for doing this history of the island through objects has to do with history itself. Ireland, at least as much as any other place, has been awash with grand narratives and epic histories, which all come in competing versions.
THE THING ABOUT these big narratives, though, is that they tend to fall apart, or at least to get very complicated, when you scale down the field of study. Biography tends to reveal more ambiguities than local histories, and local histories tend to contain more contradictions than national narratives.
For this reason much of recent Irish history-writing has tended to concentrate on the small scale and the fine detail. This is an admirable reaction against the inadequacy of the grand narratives, but it does leave non-historians feeling somewhat excluded.
By unfolding a rough history of Ireland through 100 objects we can combine the virtues of microhistory – what could be more micro than a single thing? – with a broad chronological narrative. We can tell a “story of Ireland” that is complex and ambiguous but at the same time broad and engaging.
We have therefore chosen 100 remarkable objects, each of which opens a window on to an important moment in Irish history. Most come from the great trove of the National Museum of Ireland, a resource that is itself one of the wonders of Ireland. (The director, Pat Wallace, and his staff have been vital to this project.)
Others are from a variety of other institutions. They are not intended to be the 100 most remarkable objects on the island, or even to be a representative sample of the great collections. They are chosen simply for their ability to illuminate moments of change, development or crisis.
We have adopted three simple rules. An “object” is defined as a single man-made entity, a definition that excludes buildings. The objects are generally presented chronologically. And unless there is an overwhelming reason to the contrary, the objects themselves are accessible to readers in public institutions or spaces.
If nothing else, the series should act as a reminder that people have been on this island for quite some time and have survived innumerable ordeals and challenges.
A History of Ireland in 100 Objects Mesolithic fish trap, circa 5000 BC
It doesn’t look like much: some small, smooth interwoven sticks embedded in the turf from a bog at Clowanstown, in Co Meath. Its discovery was a side effect of the great Irish boom: it lay in the path of the M3 motorway.
But at the end of the last ice age the bog was a lake. The woven sticks are an astonishing survival, part of a conical trap used by early Irish people to scoop fish from the lake or catch them in a weir. Radiocarbon tests date its creation to between 5210 and 4970 BC.
The delicacy of the work has survived the millennia. Nimble hands interlaced young twigs of alder and birch, gathered from the edge of dense woods. The warp-and- weft technique is quite advanced and similar to the way of weaving cloth that would be developed much later in human history. The Irish trap could be called a classic design: similar ones are still in use around the world.
The people who made this trap were adept at using what was around them. They used saplings to make circular tent-like huts. They turned flint and chert stones into knives, arrow heads and hand axes. They foraged, hunted and fished, gradually making a human mark on what had been an outpost of untouched nature.
In human terms Ireland is a very new country. Recent finds suggest the movement of our species out of Africa may have begun more than 125,000 years ago. North America was extensively settled 13,000 years ago. But there is no evidence of human settlement in Ireland before 8000 BC. Ireland was a remote island. It was also very cold, with the last of its ice ages not ending until 10000 BC. If small groups of people lived here during the warmer intervals, no trace of them has yet been found.
When hunter-gatherers did arrive from Britain, they found a densely forested landscape, a temperate climate and an abundance of animals, including wild pigs, wolves, foxes and bears (though not yet deer). Brown trout, salmon and eel were abundant in rivers and lakes. It is not accidental that the earliest settlements yet identified, at Mount Sandel, in Co Derry, and Lough Boora, in Co Offaly, were close to water: 70 per cent of the bones found at Lough Boora were from fish.
The people who made the trap almost certainly moved with the seasons, following their best sources of food. They would not have seen themselves as belonging to a large, overarching group. Yet the flint tools they made were gradually becoming distinctive and different from those in Britain. Slowly and unconsciously, Ireland was emerging as a particular human space.
Thanks to Mary Cahill, assistant keeper at the National Museum of Ireland
* Where to see itNational Museum of Ireland – Archaeology, Kildare Street, Dublin 2, museum.ie