Archaeology, Story, and Ireland

In the fast paced heart of Dublin City,. you can step back in time, into quiet, into voices from the past…

There are stone tools which people living on the island of Ireland used to make everyday objects, as well as stone tombs and dolmens, more than 7000 years ago

Gold beads, necklaces, arm bands, and cloak fasteners from prehistoric times

Well preserved — but still rather spooky — bodies of several people who were buried in Ireland’s bogs, and items which were found with them

There’s a bell which may have belonged to Saint Patrick, who walked Ireland’s roads in the fifth century

A cross which was carried in processions in the west of Ireland, which once held at it center a piece of the True Cross

cross of cong nation msueum archaeology ireland by kerry dexter

The skeleton of a Viking, and swords and tools from Viking times of Dublin. some of which were excavated not far from the museum itself

A chalice made around the year 800 and long buried in a field (perhaps to keep it away from those Vikings)

These things, and many more objects, are all displayed in ways that weave together their stories at the National Museum of Ireland: Archaeology.

gold torc national museum archaeology ireland by kerry dexter

The museum is in the heart of Dublin City, in Kildare Street. It is in a building which is itself rather historic, dating back to 1890, with columns made of stone quarried in the four corners of the island, and mosaics on the floor. Around the rotunda where you enter are counters selling books, postcards, and souvenirs. They are worth your exploration, but pass them by for now, and head straight through to the exhibits.

All of these things are objects drawn from lives lived out in day to day activities in the past, that’s true, and their lives in their times were as full as ours are in ours. That said, there is always, for me, more than a bit of stillness in that runs through all the exhibits at Ireland’s National Museum: Archaeology.

At times that’s a stillness filled with quiet humor — a carving which has three faces and in its spare design invites complexity of thought, for instance. It would not look out of place in a twenty first century art exhibit. It was, though, made in the Iron Age, and was found in County Cavan.

Other times the stillness suggests exuberance. All the gold pieces in Ireland’s Gold do that, for me. These were made centuries and centuries ago, before written history in Ireland. You have to think the makers and the wearers both must have enjoyed them. That reaches through time.

gold national museum of ireland archaeology by kerry dexter

In some parts of the museum the stillness is somber. There are those bog bodies. The remains of more than one hundred people have been found in Ireland’s bogs, preserved by the combination of acidity, damp, and cold temperature found there.

bog in ireland

Some were people who seemed to have tumbled into a bog by accident and drowned, some may have been pushed in and murdered, and others, such as the ones whose bodies you will see at the National Museum of Ireland: Archaeology, may have been chosen for ritual sacrifice. That’s the approach the museum’s scholars have taken in the signage which is found in this area of the museum.

Another side of early Irish life and creativity found expression in items as different as a large decorated horn which, it is thought, was used to scare off invaders in battle, and a small intricately made boat, likely created as a offering to the Celtic sea god Manannán mac Lir. In each of these, and in many other objects, practical use, story telling, and joy in creativity come together.

gold boat nationa museum of ireland archaeology by kerry dexter

There are times when the stillness resonates with reverence, too. Saint Patrick’s bell and the decorated reliquary which contained it, a shrine which contained Saint Bridgid’s shoe, what remains of an ancient psalter (which will give you an idea of the challenges archaeologists face in learning from such things), all suggest this. So, too does my favourite object in the collection of the National Museum of Ireland: Archaeology: the Ardagh Chalice.

ardagh chalice national museum of ireland archaeology copyright kerry dexter

Another favourite, and perhaps one of the museum’s best known pieces — you’ll often see images of it on signage and publicity material — is the Tara Brooch. These five things are all in the area of the museum known as The Treasury, along with many other intriguing and well displayed objects.

tara brooch sign national museum of ireland archaeology by kerry dexter

I encourage you to take time with the exhibits at the National Museum of Ireland: Archaeology and let the stillness of them sink in.You will find your own favourite pieces. If you want a quick greatest hits visit though (and be prepared for the objects to change your mind about that) head straight to The Treasury. In one one room you’ll move from prehistoric to medieval Ireland with some of the most creative — and at times enigmatic– pieces of art you may have ever seen.

There is indeed much more to the National Museum of Ireland: Archaeology than I’ve sketched out here. The pieces I’ve mentioned are all part of the permanent exhibition, and there are changing exhibitions, too. Upper floors contain the museum’s collections of artifacts from ancient Egypt and ancient Cyprus, as well as more about Vikings in Ireland and medieval Ireland.

Whether you are able to visit museum in person or not, there is reading and listening to explore. Fintan O’Toole’s book A History of Ireland in 100 Objects offers interesting context to many pieces in the museum, and covers objects held in other collections as well. If you’d like to hear what the music of early medieval Ireland sounded like and learn about poetry of that time, seek out the recording Songs of the Scribe from Padraigin Ni Uallachain.

Admission to the National Museum of Ireland: Archaeology is free. It is generally open 10:00 to 17:00 Tuesday through Saturday, and on Sunday afternoons. It is closed on Mondays. The National Museum of Ireland: Archaeology is committed to helping and encouraging visitors to learn about the collections and the work of the museum. There is an extensive program of workshops, talks, and other ways to interact with the collection designed to interest visitors from teachers to families and from young children to senior adults, and printed guides to the museum are available in half a dozen languages. The staff of the National Museum of Ireland: Archaeology encourages scholars and artists to draw on the museum’s resources to inspire their work as well. The National Museum of Ireland: Archaeology web site is a useful source of information for all of this, and for planning your visit.

Photographs by Kerry Dexter, with the exception of the one of the bog, which is in public domain. Thank you for respecting copyright.

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