Friday, March 7, 2014

Archaeology Museum

Just behind the Natural History Museum on Kildare Street in Dublin is our favorite museum.  The National Museum of Ireland- Archaeology houses artifacts of the human history of Ireland dating back thousands of years.  We have visited the museum several times, and find new (old!) things at which to marvel each time.  Best of all... it's always free.

The museum itself sits in the campus of government buildings between Kildare and Merrion Square, alongside Leinster House (Irish house of Parliament) and various government agency buildings- much like Washington, D.C. and its Smithsonian campus along the National Mall.  The building itself was opened as a museum in 1890, and it retains that nineteenth-century splendor and decor today.

The Main Rotunda

Among our favorite permanent exhibits is The Treasury, a collection of priceless jewelry found from various historical ages around Ireland.  The star of the show, if I have to pick one, might be the Cross of Cong.  

Cross of Cong

The cross dates from the 12th century and was kept in a friary in Cong, County Mayo for centuries. Other standouts in the Treasury are the Tara Brooch, Silver Chalice, and the Faddan More Psalter.  

Tara Brooch

Silver Chalice

Faden More Psalter

Our true favorite, and a must-see sight for any Dublin visitor is the Kingship and Sacrifice exhibit.  This collection has on display several recently discovered but staggeringly old bog bodies.  Ireland is well-known for its peat bogs, ancient, stagnant wetlands with layers of compacted, partially-decayed plant matter.  This packed plant matter is on its way to being coal, but needs a few thousand more years of pressure to get there.  It is still burnable, and has been harvested in Ireland as fuel for centuries.

Recently, mechanical harvesting machines have allowed harvesters to dig deeper into bogs much more quickly, and they have found all manner of ancient artifacts and indeed, human remains.  The acidic environment of peat bogs, even with standing water, inhibits microbial growth and preserves organic material like flesh and bone.  Human remains laid (or thrown...) into bog pits would be covered in layers of dead plant material and peat and preserved, often with their clothing, for centuries.  

In ancient Ireland, many victims of murder or human sacrifice were thrown into bog pits for various reasons, and are being discovered around Ireland (and much of Northern Europe) today.  The museum has several bodies and limbs on display, and all are presented very respectfully and tastefully.  Each set of remains is in a glass display case in a round cubicle.  The bodies aren't visible from the main area and the crowds of visitors.  Anyone wishing to see remains must walk into these spiral cubicles.  This shows great respect to what are, let us not forget, human bodies.  It also ensures that those who might be uncomfortable seeing the remains can view the rest of the exhibit without running face-to-face into a human limb or face.

Each set of remains has a story to tell, and these stories are presented on the outside of the display cubicle.  Some are so well preserved that scientists can deduce the time of year of their death based upon undigested and preserved food in their stomachs.  Most are victims of murder, with mortal wounds on the head and neck.  Some may have been kings or clan leaders, killed by rivals or angry subordinates.  

I will not include any photos of the remains on this page for reasons stated above, but anyone wishing to see them can visit the Kingship and Sacrifice site for a small selection of photos.

There are many more permanent and temporary exhibits to see in the museum, from Ireland's Viking past to her Medieval and Christian period and beyond.  For a full description (better than mine) of each exhibit and the latest news visit the museum website.  For an even better look, come to Dublin and visit the museum yourself.

...Did I mention it's free?

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