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Guide to the National Museum of Ireland
Guide to the National Museum of Ireland
The Building and its Collections
Ór – Ireland's Gold
Medieval Ireland 1150–1550
Ceramics and Glass from Ancient Cyprus 2500 B.C. – A.D. 300
Kingship & Sacrifice
Guide to the National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology
© National Museum of Ireland, Dublin, 2007
Text: Eamonn P. Kelly. With thanks to Raghnall Ó Floinn, Mary
Cahill, Andy Halpin, Maeve Sikora, Stephen Quirke and John Taylor
Photography: Valerie Dowling, Noreen O'Callaghan and John Searle
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be copied,
reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, broadcast or
transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical,
photocopying, recording or otherwise without prior permission
in writing from the publishers.
The Building and its Collections
The National Museum of Ireland was founded under the Dublin
Science and Art Museum Act of 1877. Previously, the museum’s
collections had been divided between Leinster House, originally
the headquarters of the Royal Dublin Society, and the Natural
History Museum in Merrion Street, built as an extension to Leinster
House in 1856–7. Under the Act, the government purchased the
museum buildings and collections. To provide storage and display
space for the Leinster House collections, the government quickly
implemented plans to construct a new, custom-built museum on
Kildare Street and on 29th August 1890, the new museum opened
its doors to the public.
View across the gallery
of the centre court
The Museum of Archaeology is home to the Irish Antiquities
Division of the National Museum of Ireland which is the national
repository for all archaeological objects found in Ireland. It holds
in trust for the nation and the world a series of outstanding
archaeological collections spanning millennia of Irish history and also
holds extensive collections of non-Irish antiquities. The museum
houses artefacts ranging in date from 7000 B.C. to the late medieval
period and beyond. On display are prehistoric gold artefacts,
metalwork from the Celtic Iron Age, Viking artefacts and medieval
ecclesiastical objects and jewellery, as well as rich collections of
ancient Egyptian and Cypriot material.
The building, designed by Cork architects Thomas Newenham
Deane and his son Thomas Manly Deane, is an architectural
landmark. It is built in the Victorian Palladian style and has been
compared with the Altes Museum in Berlin, designed by Karl
Schinkel in the 1820s. Neo-classical influences can be seen in
the colonnaded entrance and the domed rotunda, which rises to
a height of 20 metres and which is modelled on the Pantheon in
Rome. Within the rotunda, classical columns – made of marble
quarried in Counties Cork, Kilkenny, Galway, Limerick and Armagh
– mirror the entrance. In the great centre court, a balcony is
supported by rows of slender cast-iron columns with elaborate
capitals and with bases decorated with groups of cherubs. On the
balcony, further rows of plain columns and attractive openwork
spandrels support the roof.
Wooden door panel carved by
Carlo Cambi of Siena, Italy.
Mosiac floor in the rotunda depicting
the signs of the zodiac.
The interior is decorated richly with motifs that recall the civilisations
of ancient Greece and Rome. Splendid mosaic floors depict scenes
from classical mythology, among which the zodiac design in the
rotunda is especially popular with visitors. Particularly lavish are the
majolica fireplaces and door surrounds manufactured by Burmantofts
Pottery of Leeds, England, and the richly carved wooden doors by
William Milligan of Dublin and Carlo Cambi of Siena, Italy.
The building is faced with Leinster granite, while sandstone from
Mount Charles, County Donegal is used in the entrance colonnade,
on the upper storey and to highlight doors and windows. Dublin
sculptor Thomas Farrell was commissioned to produce the
sculptural detail on the facade and roof in the form of statuary
groups, single figures and urns, but the work was curtailed for
reasons of cost. In recent years, the exterior stonework, some of
the mosaic floors and a number of the majolica door and fireplace
surrounds have been restored.
Based on core collections assembled in the late eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries by the Royal Dublin Society and the Royal
Irish Academy, the archaeological collections have been augmented
considerably over the last hundred years. The National Museum
is responsible for the portable archaeological heritage of Ireland,
and legislation enacted over the years has developed the role of
the museum in relation to all aspects of Irish archaeology, including
excavation, conservation, underwater archaeology and export
control. The museum’s role in relation to local museums has also
grown considerably. The collection and its archive constitute
a national database of archaeological information that is an
indispensable resource for the study of Irish civilisation.
The earliest artefact found in Ireland is a flint flake from
Mell, Co. Louth. It could date to as early as 400,000 B.C.
No clear evidence has yet emerged to demonstrate the presence of
humankind in Ireland during the Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age) period,
a time during which much of Ireland was covered by ice sheets. A
flint flake from gravel deposits at Mell, near Drogheda, County Louth,
is the earliest known artefact found in Ireland. Fashioned elsewhere,
perhaps between 300,000 and 400,000 B.C., it was deposited
subsequently by an ice sheet near the Irish coast. From around 12,000
B.C., the ice sheets melted and wood-lands developed, providing
a habitat for wildlife that migrated to Ireland via land bridges from
Britain and mainland Europe. By around 7000 B.C., the earliest Irish
settlers were hunting animals, especially wild pigs, gathering wild
plants and shellfish, and fishing in lakes, rivers and the sea.
Polished stone spearhead from
Cloonarragh, Co. Roscommon.
Javelin head of chert found in a bog at
Kellysgrove, Co. Galway.
Axe of jadeite from Paslickstown, Co.
Westmeath, an exotic import from alpine
Italy probably reserved for ceremonial use.
Excavation of the earliest settlements in Ireland has produced tiny
blades and points of flint and chert, called microliths that were used
in composite harpoon-like implements. Scrapers and stone axes were
also utilised. By around 4500 B.C., larger flake implements called
Bann flakes (so-called because many were found on the shores of
the River Bann in the north of Ireland) replaced earlier forms, and
polished spearheads of slate or mudstone appeared.
Food Vessels (from
Co. Dublin; and
Early Bronze Age.
A log boat from Addergoole Bog, Lurgan, Co. Galway.
Acquired in 1902, it created more than passing interest on
its arrival at the museum.
By around 3700 B.C., the first farming settlements had been
established. Farming was based on imported domesticated cattle,
sheep and goats, and on cereals such as wheat and barley. Flintbladed sickles were used to harvest grain that was ground to
flour on saddle querns. The farmers lived in rectangular timber
houses, and household goods included pottery bowls used for
storage and cooking, while flint javelin heads, arrowheads, blades,
knives and scrapers were used for a range of functions. Factories
for the quarrying and production of stone axes are known. Some
axes may have had ceremonial functions, while the wearing of
axe amulets and the deposition of axes in burials would appear to
confirm their important status.
urns (from left),
Early to Middle
Decorated flint mace head from Knowth,
Co. Meath, one of the earliest artistic
masterpieces from Ireland.
Megalithic (large stone) tombs such as portal tombs, court tombs
and passage tombs were used for communal burial. A reconstructed
passage tomb is displayed that incorporates decorated stones
from several ruined tombs; however, the precise significance of
the decorative motifs on these stones has been lost. Pottery, mace
heads, small polished stone balls, beads, amulets and pendants were
deposited ritually with the dead, along with phallic-shaped stones and
bone pins that may have been associated with fertility rituals. Towards
the end of the Neolithic (New Stone Age) period, circular ceremonial
enclosures were built of earth and wood, while flat-based pottery
and a new form of flint arrowhead made their appearance. The oldest
intact Irish vessel is a huge logboat from Addergoole Bog, Lurgan,
County Galway, hollowed out from the trunk of an oak tree around
2500 B.C. It was around this time that the knowledge of metalworking
was introduced to Ireland, together with a distinctive type of pottery
called Beaker Ware that, all over Europe, is found in association with
early metalworking. Ceramic bowls, sometimes with projecting feet,
are also known, as are similar vessels carved from wood.
Top Right: Halberd from Greaghnafarna,
Co. Leitrim and dagger from Athlone,
Co. Westmeath. Early Bronze Age.
Top left: Spearhead found near Maghera,
Co. Derry. Late Bronze Age. Bronze
rapier, Lissan, Co. Derry.
Middle Bronze Age.
At Mount Gabriel, County Cork, a wooden pick, shovel, stone
mauls and tapers of resinous wood to provide light were among the
equipment found in mines dated to the Early Bronze Age.
The earliest metal objects produced in Ireland were flat axes of
pure copper that could be cast easily in single-piece stone moulds
and hardened by hammering. Later, these were replaced with twopiece stone moulds, allowing for the making of tools and weapons
of increasing complexity. A further development was the process of
mixing copper with tin to produce bronze. Other products included
knives, daggers, sickles, awls, spearheads, razors and halberds (a
dagger-like blade attached to a long wooden pole).
End-blown trumpet, Drumbest, Co. Antrim, and side-blown
trumpet, Derrynane, Co. Kerry. Late Bronze Age.
The earliest metal-smiths were buried in megalithic monuments
known as wedge tombs, but around 2200 B.C. these began to be
replaced by separate burials of one or more persons either in simple
pits or in stone-lined graves known as cists that are sometimes found
clustered in cemeteries. In keeping with earlier burial practices, the
remains were cremated, but in a new development, unburnt bodies
were also interred, usually in a crouched position. Highly decorated
pots known as Food Vessels and – very occasionally – other personal
possessions accompanied the dead.
Gradually, cremation became popular once more, and the burnt
bones were placed in large decorated pots called urns, which were
inverted in the graves. Different types of urns – Vase, Encrusted,
Collared and Cordoned – were used, and in some cases, Food
Vessels and tiny vessels called Incense Cups were placed with them,
accompanied occasionally by daggers, beads, pins and ceremonial
Cast bronze sword, Ballyharney, Co.
Westmeath. Late Bronze Age.
Top Right: Five gold bands from
Belville, Co. Cavan.Early Bronze Age
Bottom Right: Pair of Early Bronze Age
gold discs from Tedavnet, Co. Monaghan.
Late Bronze Age.
From about 1200 B.C., climatic deterioration and other factors
resulted in a period of development and innovation. The dead were
cremated and sometimes placed in undecorated urns, often buried
at the centre of small ring ditches. Metal-smiths made spearheads,
rapiers, axes of a type known as palstaves and a range of smaller tools.
After 900 B.C. the production of large numbers of weapons,
especially swords, and the deposition of hoards suggest a period of
violence and uncertainty. Other weapons and tools were produced
including shields, cauldrons, spears and axes as well as tools such
as chisels, gouges, punches, tweezers, sickles and knives. Bronze
horns were cast in moulds and these are among the oldest known
musical instruments from Ireland. Crude, coarsely-made pottery was
used for cooking, storage and as containers for the cremated bones
of the dead. Wooden trackways were constructed across bogs, and
at Doogarrymore, County Roscommon, two wooden wheels from a
cart used in the fourth century B.C. were found in association with
such a trackway.
Ór – Ireland’s Gold
The National Museum of Ireland’s collection of Bronze Age gold
work is one of the largest and most important in Western Europe.
The earliest objects were produced between 2200 and 1800 B.C.
from gold that was probably acquired from river gravels and worked
into thin sheets by hammering. These were of two types: convex
discs, sometimes found in matching pairs, and crescent-shaped
neck ornaments known as lunulae. The discs are decorated with
concentric rows of dots, crosses, triangles and zigzags, and the
presence of a pair of central perforations suggests that they were
attached to a garment and were worn on special occasions.