“Exploring Ireland” is Peter Sommer Travels’ first Irish itinerary, an expert-led archaeological tour of Ireland, running only for the second time in 2019. Once again, we are offering a kind of diary of the tour, as we did for Crete and the Dodecanese in 2017 and for the Peloponnese and the Cyclades in 2018. We followed those precedents, not describing every day in detail (just check our itineraries on www.petersommer.com), but picking one image we took on each day, accompanying it with some thoughts or insights.
The final day of our tour through the central section of Ireland (as seen on a North-South Axis) brought us back to Dublin, the country's most important city since the Late Middle Ages. In the afternoon, we offered our guests a leisurely but informative walk through the historic centre, so as to explain how Dublin grew from a smallish Viking bridgehead to a great Scandinavian-Irish centre, then to an Anglo-Irish city and how it developed further through the Elizabethan and Georgian eras to its turbulent 19th and 20th century history. We showed them many witnesses to this urban history, including Dublin Castle and Christ Church Cathedral.
This was preceded by a visit to the National Museum in Kildare Street, the main archaeological exhibit among the multiple parts of the National Museum. Housed in a fine Victorian structure, it is home to the most important prehistoric and Early Christian artefacts in Ireland: a truly breathtaking collection that contains many items from the areas we had travelled during the previous week, objects that further illustrate our tale of Irish history and that complete our narrative in the most beautiful way. One of so many is the Gleninsheen Collar, shown in our image.
On our tour, we concentrate on five aspects of the museum: 1. the Neolithic artefacts, closely connected with what we showed our guests at Brú na Bóinne; 2. the extraordinary collection of mostly Bronze Age goldwork, found all over Ireland (including at Gleninsheen); 3. the newest exhibit, 'Kingship and Sacrifice', of Irish bog bodies, illustrating concepts of Celtic Irish religion and kingship; 4. the 'Treasury', a collection of breathtaking metalwork from the island's Early Christian era, a key aspect of Irish monasticism, connected with the visual splendour of the High Crosses and of manuscripts like the Book of Kells, and with items like the Shrine of Saint Manchan, and finally 5. the exhibit of material from Viking Dublin, including many finds of organic material, such as wood and leather, preserved by the water-logged conditions on the banks of the Liffey.
For this post, I've chosen a picture of the Gleninsheen Collar, or Gleninsheen Gorget, just one of many fine golden ornaments in the museum. It was found in County Clare in 1932, just a few fields away from the Portal Tomb of Poulnabrone, by a local farmer. Apparently, the collar had been wedged into one of the grykes, the crevices in the limestone, and covered with a flat slab of limestone. It dates to around 800 BC, or around the Bronze Age to Iron Age transition in Ireland, and it is one of few such items known. It belongs to a period when Ireland had no cities and produced no readable record of its history, but when it appears to have had some contacts with Britain and Europe.
The Gleninsheen Collar is made of five separate pieces of sheet gold (Ireland did and does have gold), three of which are visible in our picture. Namely, they are four circular disks, in two pairs (you can see the upper disk of each pair on either side) and the crescent-shaped collar itself, its terminals (or ends) welded in place between the pairs of disks. All five pieces are of sheet gold, that is gold beaten into thin sheets. The visible parts are further decorated, with concentric circles and circular bosses on the disks, each of which has a central pointed boss, and with rope decoration and countless bosses on the crescent. All three techniques of goldwork then known are used: repoussé (sheet gold hammered into shape over a matrix of clay or wood), incision (carving details with a pointed tool) and wirework (the application of shaped gold wire to an object). Additionally, the collar was polished to make it shine more brilliantly. It is remarkable how fine the work is: measuring 31 cm (12") across, the collar weight only 276 grams (9.74oz)!
The object appears to be a collar, gorget or pectoral, in other words an impressive piece of jewellery worn around someone's neck and covering their chest. We have little to no idea who such a someone was in 8th century BC Ireland, but it is evident that they must have been exceptionally important, most likely by rank or role. Perhaps the Gleninsheen Collar was part of the ceremonial attire of a local ruler, a chieftain or priest, or a priestess or princess? We are not sure whether Ireland was 'Celtic' by then, whether the Central European tribes we know as Celts has settled or entered the island: Ireland is geographically peripheral, at the outskirts, and thus is seen to be marginal and to receive cultural influences late. We are looking at an item that seems connected with things we know from both Britain and the European continent, but that is so sophisticated, so perfect in its craftsmanship, and so exuberant in its skilled use of gold, that it makes Ireland a likely source of sophistication in that era: an untold story.
And there we have it: an item of astonishing craftsmanship, and an object that evidently implies a meaning and a story we cannot quite understand. That's the essence of prehistory. It is also an artefact of unexpected beauty with a complex story attached. That's the essence of Ireland.
Tomorrow, having concluded their cultural tour in Ireland, our guests will embark on their further travels, homewards or to new adventures...