Some Ancient Things I Found In Ireland (In A Museum)

In Ireland, all national museums are free. If this isn’t the coolest museum-related thing you’ve read all day, you probably lead a more interesting life than I do – maybe even Brillo. The happy effect of this is that if you see something you like, you can go back again and again and again until they tell you to stop taking pictures of funny Irish names listed on the benefactor wall.

The National Museum of Archaeology, part of the National Museum of Ireland – which is in turn part of this great big wacky hunk of space rock we all call home – is one of the most fascinating collections of art, tools, and people I’ve ever seen. That’s right – people. The National Museum of Archaeology houses several bog bodies – people that fell into ancient bogs and were preserved by the conditions of their untimely graves.

"Preserved" is a slightly relative term.

Did I mention that you probably shouldn’t be reading this in a workplace environment? Oh, well. You might as well continue.

Now, when I say these people fell into the bogs, I only sometimes mean that literally. Judging by the ropes and other restraints frequently found on the remains, these poor blokes “fell” in the same way that Louis XVI “oopsie-doodled” his head under that guillotine. Criminals and other unwanted members of society were apparently tied up and thrown into the peat bogs that dot the Irish landscape.

Interestingly, not even royalty was safe from this punishment. In ancient Ireland, kings and queens were considered intimately linked to the environment. If crops failed, disease spread, or nature decided a settled valley wasn’t underwater enough, the blame was placed directly on the ruler. They were then thrown into a bog, or otherwise executed.

Okay, now the next photo is a bit worse than the last one. It’s also really cool.

"Half the man I used to be? Well, at least I still have hair."

“Half the man I used to be? Well, at least I still have hair.”

Yes, this is half a person. But don’t worry: He wasn’t cut down in the prime of life. No, he was whole for thousands of years. Through the rise and fall of countless empires, the start and bitter end of numerous wars, and across generations lost to time, our friend here was preoccupied with being really well preserved. Took up all his time, really.

Then a backhoe cut him in half.

Backstory: Ireland harvests peat for energy production and other purposes, and during a routine bog… mining? What do you call that? Schlorping? Is that the sound wet peat makes? Anyway, during a routine bog schlorping, a backhoe cut this guy right down the middle. All we have is the top. The bottom half was  burnt to power some ungrateful bastard’s bedside lamp.

Side note: Imagine if in the deep future, later inhabitants of Earth use human remains to power their space gadgets. Like how we use dinosaurs. How weird would that be? You can stop imagining that now.

Arguably the most interesting room in the Museum is the Treasure Room, in which they store precious artifacts from ages past. This one room has the three most famous examples of medieval Irish metalwork – The Tara Brooch, the Ardagh Chalice, and the Cross of Cong. I spent most of my time here plotting an action-packed heist starring Bruce Willis as a curmudgeonly old coot dragged along by his art-collecting/robbing nephew, Robert Downey Junior In Sunglasses. I’m open to movie deals, people.

First, the brooch. (Note that while I do have photographs of all these artifacts, they were taken through thick glass. In order to give you the best detail possible, I’ve borrowed images from the Museum’s website.)

It is truly difficult to give you an idea of how intricate this metalwork is. Some bits can only be seen with a magnifying glass. Although other, more complete brooches survive, none are this ridiculously ornate. The piece was clearly intended as an impressive status symbol for a man of great wealth and power. Additionally, the metalworker who crafted the Tara Brooch would have received substantial commendation for his creation. I’m rubbish at metalwork, and have the scars to prove it, but I can definitely say the Tara Brooch is unique in its exquisite construction. I can also say that same sentence, but in an affected British accent nostalgically reminiscent of a charming old curator. I think it fits.

Interestingly, the Tara Brooch has nothing to do with the Hill of Tara, but rather was named after the Irish landmark in a 19th-century attempt to increase its value. Admittedly, it is a catchier name than the Museum gives it. “Silver-gilt annular brooch”? I don’t think so.

Next, the Ardagh Chalice:

This would have been used in liturgical ceremonies and is basically a cup. It represents the pinnacle of medieval Irish metalwork, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is still just a cup. The above picture is a replica of the cup, which was found in buried with another, lesser cup and some brooches. I find this to be the least interesting of the three, because I grew up in a practical New England family and can’t see how this thing could possibly be conducive to drinking unless you’ve already had a few too many, in which case the world is your cup.

On the page dedicated to the Ardagh Cup, the Museum talks more about famous replicas and sports than it does about the relic. That should say enough. I’d write more, but I don’t want to appear biased.

Bring me… the Cross of Cong!

The Cross of Cong is by far my favorite, a fact which is about to become all kinds of evident. Its history has a bit of everything: Vikings, deception, money, power, and sweet, sweet filigree. First off, understand that Irish historians use the quality of an artifact’s construction to date it when other resources aren’t of help. This seems rather snobby, but has a fascinating reason.

The intricacy of Irish metalwork continued to increase until the Vikings arrived in the 9th century. The Vikings killed metalworkers and plundered their materials, and as a culture were less focused on the finer things in life and more on melting those things down for their own use. Over the following centuries, the Vikings assimilated into Irish culture, and a new wave of proficiency took the Irish metalworking world by storm, presumably accompanied by contemporary magazines interviewing celebrity chalice designers.

The cross dates to 1123. The High King of Ireland, by now more-or-less immune to angry proto-environmentalists throwing him into bogs, commissioned it to hold a piece of the True Cross – i.e., the one Jesus was crucified on. At this time, a whole industry revolved around forging religious artifacts, so most – possibly all – pieces of the True Cross gifted to European monarchs were in fact forgeries. Paying no mind, the High King went ahead and ordered this shrine to be built, with a central piece of rock crystal displaying the glorified chunk of wood.

“Behind this crystal lies a shard from a tree that was definitely cut down more than a week ago and is totally not fake.”

The piece of the True Cross has long since been lost, which is really no hardship considering the aforementioned bit about forgery. But the cross itself is one beautiful masterpiece. I mean, just look at this:

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That’s right. That’s the head of a… thing… that was intended to display the High King’s power and status. Personally, I think calling yourself “High King” says enough about your clout, but hey, if he wants a gold dragon Viking thing, that’s his prerogative.

The Cross of Cong is named after the abbey in County Mayo where it was held for centuries.

Been awhile since we've seen a Brillo pic.

Welcome back, Brillo. Haven’t seen you for a while.

Oh, and the columns at the Museum are covered in babies:

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Do what you will with that information.

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