National Museums of Ireland

Above: The entrance to the National Museum of Ireland - Archaeology Photo: Hannah Mac Auliffe

Ireland is fortunate to host four free National Museums: the Museum of Decorative Arts and History in a former Dublin military barracks; the Museum of Natural History, otherwise known as the Dead Zoo; the Museum of Country Life on the West Coast; and the Museum of Archaeology. Nestled to the right of Ireland’s parliament buildings, the Museum of Archaeology appears unassuming from the street outside. In fact, if it wasn’t for the gold lettering over the gate, it would be difficult to know that a museum lay behind the wrought-iron railings. Yet on the other side of that gate sits a magnificent domed building propped up by neoclassical columns. Inside, a central court, its balconies, and adjacent rooms house a range of archaeological exhibitions. Though the museum includes exhibitions about a variety of locations and time periods, such as ancient Egypt and ancient Cyprus, the vast majority of its exhibitions focus on Ireland. These exhibitions take you on a journey through Ireland’s rich past, from the Prehistoric Period through to the Late Middle Ages.

Ireland’s Prehistoric period began in approximately 9700 BC, and progressed through the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages. With two permanent exhibitions, this is where the journey through the museum begins: Prehistoric Ireland, and Ór - Ireland’s Gold. Located in the central court, the Prehistoric Ireland exhibition centers on a 4,500-year-old boat recovered from County Galway, and the reconstruction of a Neolithic passage tomb from Carrowkeel in County Sligo. Decorated with carvings of prehistoric spirals and suns, the tomb provides the perfect backdrop for the exhibition. With a focus on tools and weapons from approximately 7000 BC to 500 BC, the display cases are filled with ancient spearheads, cauldrons, axes, as well as glass and stone jewellery to provide you with an insight into the ordinary lives of people from the first hunter-gatherers c. 7000 BC through the Bronze Age c. 500 BC.

Reconstruction of the Carrowkeel tomb
PHOTOGRAPH BY Hannah Mac Auliffe

One of the outstanding artefacts in the Prehistoric Ireland exhibition is, without a doubt, the Knowth Flint macehead, which dates to somewhere between 3300 BC and 2800 BC. This fine example of Neolithic stonework is believed to have formed the base of a ceremonial mace. It was uncovered at the passage tomb in Knowth, which is one of three major prehistoric passage tombs in the Boyne Valley in County Meath. Alongside the tombs at Newgrange and Dowth, it has also been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The macehead dates to the same period as the main tomb at Knowth. Carved from flint and marbled with browns and creams, it is decorated with intricate spirals and diamonds, making it one of the finest examples of Stone Age art in Europe.

From the same Prehistoric period, you are then treated to the Ór Exhibition. Ór is the Irish word for gold, making it a fitting title for this collection of Bronze Age Irish goldwork jewellery. Glistening under spotlights, the display cases present impressive gold lunulas (crescent-shaped necklaces), armlets and hair rings, bracelets, dress fasteners and potential ear and nose rings. This collection was put together with artefacts from various hoards uncovered in archaeological digs across Ireland, such as the Ballinesker Hoard (County Wexford in the South East), and the Coggalbeg Hoard (County Roscommon in the West). Ór reflects the splendour of the Irish Bronze Age in dazzling brilliance.

The Gleninsheen Gold Collar in the Ór exhibition
PHOTOGRAPH BY Hannah Mac Auliffe

The next step on the museum’s journey through Ireland’s archaeological history is the Iron Age, seen in the permanent Kingship and Sacrifice exhibition. Housed in a dimly lit room away from the central court, the exhibition takes a look at the relationship between kingship and ritual practices in Ireland between 500 BC and 400 AD. The collection includes some weapons, cutlery, and ritual regalia, such as head-dresses for horses, but the stars of the show are the museum’s collection of bog bodies. These bodies, either entire or partial mummies preserved in Ireland’s peat bogs since the Iron Age, were discovered in 2003 and date to between 400 BC and 200 BC. Among the bog bodies, each hidden at the end of a spiral pathway, is the Old Croghan Man; the preserved torso and arms of a man in his early twenties, killed between 360 BC and 175 BC. He wears a leather arm band, which would suggest that he was of the dynastic elites, and it was believed that he was stabbed and decapitated in ritual sacrifice either as a rejected king, or as a gesture to the fertility or harvest gods. His discovery near the hill of Cruachán, a site of mythological significance in early Ireland, further suggests that his death was part of a ritual. This exhibition uses the bog bodies and related artefacts to suggest that human sacrifice was one aspect of the inauguration of new kings in Iron Age Ireland.

The Old Croghan Man bog body
PHOTOGRAPH BY Hannah Mac Auliffe

In a room on the other side of the central court lies the Treasury Exhibition. One of the highlights of the museum, this exhibition brings together the finest Irish art from the Iron Age to the end of the eleventh century. The exhibition walks you through the development of Irish art, beginning with Iron Age metalwork such as the Broighter collar, a hefty gold torc necklace, and a miniature boat with oars, also crafted from gold. From here, you are treated to art from the Golden Age of Irish Art with famous pieces like the Ardagh Chalice and the glistening Tara Brooch . The exhibition space has vaulted ceilings, much lower than the impressive heights of the central court, and dimmed lights to allow the intricate metalwork to shine under spotlights. The space is a testament to the skill of Irish craftsmen from the early period, and the setting serves to further emphasize the beauty of the artefacts.

The Treasury
PHOTOGRAPH BY Hannah Mac Auliffe

In the Treasury, you are led out of the Prehistoric period and into the early Middle Ages, which then flows upstairs into the Viking Ireland Exhibition. This exhibition is divided into three sections, taking you from the end of the eighth century to the arrival of the Anglo-Normans in 1170 AD. In the first section, the focus is burial and warfare. Displays showcase skeletons, swords, spearheads, and axe heads, all found in Viking graves in Dublin. The second section turns its attention towards aspects of ordinary Viking life. Artefacts in this section include leather shoes, farming equipment, and a large collection of jewellery like brooches and bracelets. The final section has a special focus on Viking Dublin, with scale models of the city during the Viking Age, tools for metalworking found in the city, coins, cooking and eating utensils. The exhibition also includes a selection of musical whistles, and the board and pieces used for the Viking board game Hnefatafl, providing you with insights into ordinary life in a Viking town.

Outside Viking Ireland is the Clontarf 1014 Exhibition. This exhibition was opened in 2014 to commemorate the 1,000th anniversary of the 1014 Battle of Clontarf, which took place between the self-proclaimed king of Ireland and his enemies, the men of Leinster, and their Viking allies. This temporary exhibition showcases weapons and slave chains from the period of the battle, as well as examples of jewellery from the time. Through these items, the exhibition challenges the various myths surrounding the Battle of Clontarf.

Vikings swords
PHOTOGRAPH BY Hannah Mac Auliffe

The final stop on the tour of early Ireland is the Medieval Ireland exhibition. This exhibition includes artefacts from the 12th to the 16th centuries to compare and contrast the lives of kings and lords, members of the clergy, merchants, farmers, and workers in Ireland after the arrival of the Anglo-Normans. Artefacts in this exhibition include items associated with prominent Irish families, such as the Kavanagh Charter Horn, work equipment such as tools, basins and pottery, and religious items including a variety of manuscripts. The stand-out item in this exhibition is the 15th-century Crucifixion cope. This religious dress was worn by priests in medieval Waterford, in the south east of Ireland, and is adorned with intricate gold embroidery from Belgium on Italian gold cloth. The opulent fabric sparkles under its light in the display case, and is a reminder of the wealth and power of the medieval church.

And so ends our journey from Ireland’s earliest settlers right through to the end of the Renaissance period via a tour through the museum. Head back down the stairs, and as you exit through the same doors through which you entered, you’ll have the opportunity to browse the gift shop located in the marble rotunda under the building’s dome. Here, you’ll find books on Prehistoric and medieval Ireland, as well as Irish-made clothing and jewellery, replicas of medieval jewellery, as well as wooden swords, longbows and shields.

The Ardagh Chalice in the Treasury
PHOTOGRAPH BY Hannah Mac Auliffe

National Museum of Ireland - Archaeology is open all year round, from 1pm to 5pm on Sundays and Mondays, and from 10am to 5pm every other day. It is only closed on Christmas Day and Good Friday. Admission is entirely free but to facilitate social distancing and Covid-19 restrictions, visitors must book their slot online in advance.

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Hannah Mac Auliffe

Hannah Mac Auliffe is a PhD student in Trinity College Dublin, in Ireland, where she is researching aspects of early medieval Irish kingship and succession practices. She loves to spend her free time wandering around Dublin’s many museums, and believes that museums play a very important role in making history and archaeology accessible to the public.