Recent finds from Ancient Ireland

So much of the jewellery we design is inspired by ancient Ireland, when the Celts ruled supreme and the island was full of forests, lakes and family tribes. The Celts lived off the land, first as hunter gatherers and later as farmers. They created their tools, homes and clothing from natural materials like wood and clay, stone, and the skin and bones of animals. For obvious reasons none of these objects have survived, and archaeologists have pieced together what these ancient people’s lives were like from changes in soil and other circumstantial evidence.

As the Celts’ skills and lifestyle progressed over the centuries however, they discovered where to find metal ores and how to work them into more durable and efficient tools. They also began to use metal to make personal decorative objects and adornments, as symbols of wealth, power and nobility.

Image Source: National Museums Northern Ireland
Image Source: National Museums Northern Ireland

Naturally, metal is much less susceptible to decay than organic materials. Vast numbers of artefacts from the Celtic period and beyond have survived to the present day, hidden under layers of soil or in rock crevices. You’d be forgiven for thinking that by now, thousands of years later, most of the artefacts had been discovered - but you’d be wrong! Beautiful ancient objects are still being found from prehistoric ages regularly, including in Ireland. Here are a few rare finds that have all been discovered since the beginning of the 21st century.

The Wicklow Pipes

The discovery of the Wicklow Pipes in 2003 was extremely significant. Although not much to look at, this small set of pipes is officially the world’s oldest surviving wooden musical instrument. Dating from between 2000 - 2200 BC, the fact that they have survived that long in the earth is something special. The pipes were found in Greystones during an archaeological dig of an early Bronze Age burnt mound, lying in a waterlogged trough. Crafted from yew wood, the pipes were laid out in descending order, ranging in length from 57cm to 29cm. While there was no evidence for finger holes, the end of some of the pipes had been tapered, which suggests that they may have been placed into another organic fitting to be played. Historians suggest that they may have been used as a primitive bagpipe type of instrument, or some sort of complex panpipe device. Studies of the pipes are still being undertaken, and experts are constructing exact replica sets of the pipes in order to examine fully how they may have been used and played.So far, there is much debate over how the pipes were crafted; there is no evidence of the wood having been split or burnt in order to be hollowed out, so creating such even diameters in each pipe without using either of those techniques would have taken considerable skill for people without developed tools. So in short, there’s more to this set of pipes than meets the eye.

The Fermanagh Torc

In 2009 an amateur treasure hunter by the name of Ronnie Johnston dug up what he initially thought was a spring from a car engine in a field in county Fermanagh. It appeared to be just a thick piece of coiled metal, but assuming it was of at least some value, Johnston took it home. Two years later he realised it was in fact a highly significant find when he spotted similar looking objects in a treasure hunter’s magazine. As it turns out, he had found a 3,000 year old golden torc, one of only nine examples found in Ireland. While the owner of the torc and the story of how it came to be buried in the ground is a mystery, one element of the torc’s history can be generally accepted. Torcs would normally have been in the form of a large circular loop with two connections at either end to fasten and unfasten it. They were worn by only the most powerful members of Celtic society as a symbol of wealth, nobility and prowess. Valuable items such as this were usually passed down through generations of families, but if there were no worthy successors, the torc would be coiled up so that nobody else could wear it when the last owner died. Once the true identity of the obscure metal object Johnston had found was revealed, it was purchased by the State, restored to its former glory, and is now housed in the Ulster Museum’s Bronze Age Collection.


The Burren Viking Necklace

Back in 2010 archaeologists came across an extremely puzzling find when excavating a section of Glencurran cave in the Burren, county Clare; a Viking necklace dating from 1,150 years ago. It’s common knowledge that Vikings settled in Ireland during the Middle Ages, eventually living peacefully with the natives and trading skills and goods with them. However, the Vikings only settled in a few specific areas - Dublin, Wexford, Waterford, Cork and Limerick. The closest settlement to where the necklace was found is Limerick at around 50km away. When the Vikings first set up their enclaves, they were met with much reluctance and often hostility with the native Irish, who ferociously defended their territory. Therefore, historians are adamant that Vikings never touched the Burren, so how one of their necklaces ended up there is a mystery. Adding even more mystery to the circumstances was the fact that this necklace was clearly much more valuable and significant than all other examples found in Ireland, being 12 times longer and with much more elaborate decoration (including 71 glass beads covered in gold foil). Historians speculate that the necklace was traded between Vikings from Limerick and Celts from the Burren, and placed in the cave which seemed to have significance for the ancient peoples; also found in the area was the skeletal remains of seven adults, two children and one baby dating from the Bronze Age, plus part of a bear’s skeleton which turned out to be 10,000 years old!


Bog Butter

In 2013 two men, Brian Clancy and his uncle Joe, were cutting peat in the marshy boglands outside Tullamore, county Offaly. Irish boglands are often the setting for ancient Irish finds, since the conditions are good for preserving all kinds of artefacts. What the men discovered however was not your usual remnant of Celtic times however - seven feet down into the ground they unearthed a keg shaped container of some sort. Splitting it open with a spade, they discovered it was full of… prehistoric butter! The find weighed 100 lbs and was reported to still have a ‘dairy’ smell, despite being a whopping 5,000 years old. The keg was likely buried deep into the earth as a form of refrigeration, since boglands are naturally cool and moist. Deposits of ancient ‘bog butter’ are often found in bogland areas, but this one smashed the record for the biggest container of the stuff - usual finds are merely a few pounds in weight! Unfortunately nobody was brave enough to taste, so it remains unclear exactly what the substance is (although all evidence points to dairy produce). In 2014 another large deposit was found in a bog in Fermanagh, again by two men cutting peat. Initially thinking nothing of it, their dog showed particular interest in the giant ball of butter, so they brought it home to investigate. When they realised what they had on their hands (and that the dog probably shouldn’t eat it), they donated it to the Fermanagh County Museum.

The Faddan Mor Psalter

2006 marked one of the most important Irish archaeological discoveries ever, when an ancient Latin psalter (book of psalms) was discovered in Faddan Mor, county Tipperary. Bulldozer driver Eddie Fogarty was digging up - you guessed it - peat in a bog when the book fell out on top of a dump of earth, springing open. Fogarty immediately knew what the best course of action was, and covered the book in peat to prevent exposure to oxygen damaging it. Unfortunately however the book was already in very poor condition and required years and years of painstaking restoration work before experts could even begin to analyse it properly. The book contained the Latin text of the Psalms on 60 sheets of vellum, with some of the opening words decorated with coloured ink. Also found less than 100 metres away on a separate occasion was a leather binding which most likely held the Psalter, although was not attached to it (formed a wallet or folder type of protective covering). The inside of the leather cover is lined with Papyrus, providing proof that the Celtic Christian church and the Egyptian Coptic Church had established links with one another. It is one of a very small number of surviving Western books from that period (9th century), and is the first ancient manuscript to be discovered in Ireland for over 200 years. Although restoration work is still ongoing, the Psalter is usually on display in the National Museum in Kildare Street.


The Cashel Man

Although not the first, the Cashel Man is the most recent bog body to be found in Ireland. Unearthed in 2011 in the Cul na Mona bog in county Laois, it was unfortunately discovered because a milling machine hit it, damaging the head and left arm. Analysts were still able to piece together a lot of information about the body however. It was male, aged between 20-25, and dates from around 2000BC, making it the oldest example in Europe. The area in which he was found was once a thriving settlement, and all evidence points to him being the victim of a ritual sacrifice. Before death his arm was broken by a strike from a sharp object, and a wound in his back was also present. After death, his back was broken in two places, although this could have occurred from natural compression or the milling machine. He was placed on the surface of the bog on what would have been the border of two territories, with his knees tightly flexed. A number of other bodies from Celtic regions have been found this way, and it is thought that the sacrifices were closely related to kingship and god worship. Apart from the damage caused by the milling machine, the body was perfectly intact, with even the man’s close cut hair still visible. If you can overcome the squeamish factor, the Cashel Man and other bog bodies are on display the National Museum of Ireland.

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