Sect Symbols

At a recent academic meeting, it seems that the new sexy theory is that the use of symbols to express a shared identity loses or changes its meaning over time. It’s okay to think of it as diffusion, but not remembered meaning. Maybe that’s how it is in some places, but here, set your clock back some 1800 years, sometimes more. Ireland does not forget. The symbols which are shorthand for our chosen identities, and therefore subsequent political issues persist and are instantly recognisable over 300 years and sometimes more. Even the resurrection of La Tene-derivative artwork as ‘Celtic’ is a bit of a 19th and 20th century ‘up yours’ politically, as artists and dreamers and the odd crafty politician crafted an Ireland which didn’t ever really exist. Don’t get me started on this – there’s enough of it in my literature review. The real Iron Age Ireland is a lot muckier, bloodier, with a lot less gauzy clothing or faeries.

The Dark Rose, Roisin Dubh, is a metaphorically dangerous and lovely Ireland at the Flight of the Earls, with a deeper meaning after the 1798 Rebellion. The symbol is still well enough understood that it was used by Thin Lizzy (and oh, I do love some good Lizzy guitar riffs) some 200 or 300 years later.

Oh.. yeah. The United Irishmen. Probably need to explain for a few out there. The urge to support independence for England has existed for quite some time. Sorry, lads. The very Protestant Ascendancy, aided and abetted by the Church of Ireland attempted a cheeky wee bit of ethnic cleansing via the Penal Codes. These were not, as popularly thought, confined to Catholics. They extended to Presbyterians and Dissenters, with the draconian rules meant to either break them into helots or chase them out of the country… all the more luscious land for the claiming when they left. The American and French Revolutions of the late 18th century inspired a glorious and doomed bunch of dreamers and idealists.

 

Loved ones, let me introduce you to the United Irishmen, the most Romantic set of losers this side of Firefly. They wanted change. Needless to say, the British government didn’t. None of this ended well. As the leaders were all from extremely educated, liberal backgrounds, they often communicated in symbols, hence the imagery of the Cailleach Beara, Kathleen Ni Houlihan and Roisin Dubh; Ireland as a woman to be fought over, and died for love of. It’s always about sacrifice and mourning, it’s always about blood. Because identity and being  culturally awful special comes at a price.

Now, the black rose kept her meaning pretty tight, and of course the 1798 rebellion spawned numerous political symbols and secret codes ‘ for they’re hanging men and women for the wearin’ of the Green’. The United Irishmen used green coloured cockades or scarfs as a means to recognise each other – and perhaps not a very smart one, it has to be said. The extremely flattering painting of a young Henry Joy McCracken, held in the Ulster Museum, has the babelicious rebel wearing a suit of green and looking far too cute to be a political agitator. When the green accessories didn’t work, the shamrock was used, and well… doesn’t everyone know the shamrock symbol as being Oirish? Sure aren’t we the Emerald Isle, bejabers, begorrah, etc?

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Henry Joy McCracken, United Irishman, from a portrait in the wonderful Ulster Museum. Go there.

 

Symbols do remain, but sometimes their meaning gets a bit twisted depending on who uses it to make a political point. If you don’t get the endurance of a symbol, and how emphasis changes, think on the instantly recognisable ( to us anyway) symbol of the Lámh Dhearg, the Red Hand of Ulster. It sort of tickles me that a pre-Christian symbol can make some of us quite leery, due to who and what hijacked it, even though we know the original meaning. What’s that? You don’t know this one? Ahhh….you’re not a Northie, I’m sorry. Now, this is an identity thing. So here, like a good story? Sit down. Get popcorn. This is pure Game of Thrones.. but then, isn’t most of our history?

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Strangely appropriate, Ripley’s Believe it or Not stories featured a version of the Red Hand of Ulster!

Way back as the rowdy pagan Iron Age gave way to the princes of the Church, land was being contested as to who was the chieftain of the north of the island here. Whoever touched the land would own it, and the  story goes that one of the Ui Neill was so desperate to claim the land as his own he cut his hand off while on a boat and used a catapult to fling the severed hand, dripping fresh blood, onto the land of Ulaidh. However, even that was contested in the 17th century, when a version was put forward that the hand was never severed – which, if you knew your legends, makes sense. A leader had to be physically perfect to rule, so a one-handed man wouldn’t be allowed at all (sorry, Twin Peaks dude, the Old Irish were pretty damn Ableist).

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The Arm, considering career options after the end of Twin Peaks: heard that the god Nuada needed a hand…. ( yes that pun was intended. If you don’t know why, google Nuada Airgetlám

The other version had the red hand symbol as being a dab of defiance by a personal favourite character of the Ulster Cycle, Conall Cearnach, who smeared his bloodied and fighting hand print on an enemy standard while avenging CuChulainn’s death. This is very much something the old grizzler Cernach would do. He’s Die Hard 0, or maybe Bás-Chrua 1?

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From http://www.theirishinstories.com, so much squiggly La Teneyness!
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However, here’s Dunseverick, right at the end of the Slighe Midluachra and supposedly a pied-a-terre of Conall’s.

There’s a goodly link to this in the refs, and you’ll see the sort of thing that wins my heart, but the key perhaps in all this is that the hand is bloodied by desire to defend the land to the death, and legitimise your tribal claim to it. The symbol has been accepted as the crest of the O’Neill family from the 16th or 17th century no matter what the legends are, so we know the story certainly pre-dates the Elizabethan era. So, let’s skip forward about 2000 years or so to now. We’ve got some good Gaelic clubs called Lamh Derg (shout out to the Hannahstown Homies), because, y’know, it’s ‘Celtic’ and all. It’s the logo of the Ulster GAA  Also, they do indeed wage decent war on the field!  But, if you know your Troubles history, you’ll also know the symbol was hijacked by a Loyalist paramilitary group, The Red Hand Commandos, who toured around murdering Catholics in the 70s.  Yet it’s also used by the National Graves Association to mark out specifically conserved Republican graves. The symbol is also used non-politically on the logo of Ulster Rugby, the Irish Transport and Workers Union. It is a symbol of the grim and dour north who will never go down without a fight, and a political symbol for both sides of the fray, intransigent to the end, defending ….something. After 2000 years or so, the symbol is well understood, even though it has negative connotations for both sides of the community here. But we remember. These, and many others I could list, are still understood as shorthand of our origins, real or fabricated; and let’s be fair, with Irishness sometimes even we aren’t sure.

 

So, how does that tally to my beloved La Tène-derivative stuff?

The symbols matter, because once upon a time, they held  our ancestors together.

They were something understood well enough to be re-used over and over again across Europe. They bonded memory like cultural glue. Problem is, we’ve no idea what they actually meant.  Sometimes, after a few too many aperol spritzers, I think I understand them, but that’s also when I flirt with people’s houseplants and goldfish at house parties, so maybe not the most reliable or quantifiable methodology. Memory is the fabric of time and culture, and we can embroider it as we wish according to the trends, but the fabric exists without our embellishment. Memory has its own warp and weft, and bits of it are caught in song and word and fireside story. Despite all their failings, and mucked up contexts as they were written down in the Middle Ages, I am eternally glad Ireland has the ancient texts of the Lebor Gabala, Lebar na hUidre, Tain, Togail… ach, all of them. Because fragments of shattered memory and symbol is captured in the cloth of time, shimmering in the right light. It’s always about identity, and remembrance. And it’s usually connected to land and luck, the things our ancestors couldn’t really do without. Their hopes and fears and identities are within those magical twists which dance and shape-shift across metalwork. Ignore them, try to squeeze them into meaningless ordered filing systems or dismiss them, at your own cost.

 

Yes! You can do Irish proper too! Reading starts…here.

Cullingford, E.B., 1990. ’Thinking of Her… as… Ireland’: Yeats, Pearse and Heaney. Textual Practice4(1). 1-21.

Curtin, N.J., 1985. The transformation of the Society of United Irishmen into a mass-based revolutionary organisation, 1794-6. Irish Historical Studies24(96).463-492.

Hutchinson, J., 2012. Dynamics of cultural nationalism: The Gaelic revival and the creation of the Irish nation state. Routledge.

 

Kelleher, J.V., 1971. The Táin and the annals. Ériu22, pp.107-127.

Ó Riain, G., 2011. Varia III: Quatrains relating to the controversy of the Red Hand. Available at:  https://ulir.ul.ie/handle/10344/5838

 

Ó Riain, G., 2013. Varia I: 1. Two quatrains in Cath Maighe Rath; 2. An unrecorded scribal note in RIA 23 Q 16; 3. IGT II 1258. Available at : https://ulir.ul.ie/bitstream/handle/10344/5837/Eriu_63.pdf?sequence=4

Tuama, S.Ó. and Kinsella, T., 1981. An Duanaire, 1600-1900: poems of the dispossessed. Dolmen Press.

 

 

 

 

 

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‘ I’ve had the time of my life.. and I owe it all to you’. The NMI, shared space and why you should probably sign this petition

There’s an issue at the moment where the parliament of the Republic of Ireland want to take over (they claim temporarily) the ceramics rooms of the National Museum of Ireland. This, as you can imagine, would mean altering a building which in itself is a work of art (and protected) – changes involving security most likely. The ceramics room is not just for ceramics. It’s used for education space for primary school nippers, for temporary exhibitions, which are often more community related, and also as space for free talks and workshops for the public, a chance to let the highly professional staff of the NMI tell the public what’s new in the history of their own country. And I don’t have to remind you that Ireland is steeped in history, possibly from even further back than we thought!

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You can read an infinitely more intense account of this situation right here, by the ubiquitous Prof Aidan O’Sullivan of UCD: https://earlymedievalarchaeologyproject.wordpress.com/2016/10/20/the-national-museum-of-ireland-and-the-proposed-taking-by-seanad-eireann-of-its-facilities/ but basically it’s the equivalent of the House of Commons taking over the teaching rooms of the British Museum, or the US Senate doing the same in the Smithsonian. It’s a pretty rubbish idea, to be honest, and we all know that politicians have a habit of taking over permanently whatever they tell us is temporary…

 

Reading the comments on the petition to stop this happening has made me smile in a happy/sad way, and know we all have so much in common because of a wonderful building in Dublin and its staff over the ages. There’s 70+ year old who fell in love with the museum as a child, and the wonder has never left her; the fiery young undergrad , farmers, bankers, dreamers, pragmatists – it doesn’t matter, because each and all of us are united in the love of our past, displayed for free.

 

‘A cold coming we had of it – just the worst time of the year…”

 

The first time I ever made it to the NMI it was winter 2010, the worst winter in memory, when the jet stream’s misbehaviour resulted in about two months of ice and snow. Planes could not leave Dublin airport, the North here recorded temperatures under -18 C and roads were frozen and unpassable. We were supposed to have been on our field trip from Belfast to Dublin in early December of that year, but weather had been so bad, we were postponed to the week afterwards. Travelling the Boyne valley, with ice mist hovering over the frozen earth, and Fleet Foxes on the ipod, the day seemed promising, if a bit cold, but by the time we reached Kildare Street the sky had changed from sharp blue to slate and snow was tumbling down upon us again like a scene from Dr Zhivago.

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Just keep me in the crypt, stoned.. ogham stoned….

The museum that dark afternoon had a dreamlike quality, all dark golds and echoes, slightly detached from the real world, the way you remember things as a child, but don’t happen when you are an adult. The upstairs, where the medieval artefacts are displayed, felt like viewing some fascinating person’s house, with the twists and turns of the building loaning an odd feeling of upper crust domesticity and hushed intimacy. The Kingship and Sacrifice display, however, with its grotesque ‘Red Man’ figures and bog bodies and the metalwork of heroes literally changed my life. These objects felt right, felt familiar – everything enchanted, fascinated; I don’t know… reverberated inside me that I never wanted to leave the displays. I’m sure someone would suggest a bit of the oul’ reincarnations going on there, but the answer is maybe simpler. It was the day I fell hopelessly in love with the Iron Age, accepting its shadows and its sparkle all at the same time. Any inclination to the Neolithic vanished there and then.

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Gratuitous y-piece illustration.

I found my dissertation in that museum, with the Irish Y-piece, and as a result of that, my PhD thesis too. The summer of 2012 gave me a freedom and confidence I thought was lost. That summer, each week’s research trip saw me leave the NMI’s crypt late afternoon, smelling of 2000 year old tack, heading into Brown Thomas’ for a spritz of Tom Ford’s Lys Fume ( oh, why did I not purchase that perfume that summer? I’m sure it’s long discontinued, but it was magically sultry) and start the walk down Grafton Street, to O’Connell St and to Busaras with my artwork in folders and my head full of new, and slightly heretical archaeology ideas. I’m sure academia isn’t allowed to acknowledge its sensual aspects, but the smell of the crypt, the metal artefacts, sun warmed skin and good perfume will be forever that heady summer of 2012, when I started to realise chunks of history which had been unknown before were about to be rewritten.

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The Broighter Collar… torc dirty to me

The staff of the NMI humoured me, tolerated me and encouraged me with helpful ideas, directions, bashed theories around a bit over tea. No need to be wary over ideas being bandied about; the research rooms are the last homely house. Museum staff as a breed, the world over, tend to be rather wonderful (and believe me, now at PhD I could write a connoisseur’s guide of museums of Europe!) but the NMI’s staff are among the finest worldwide. They treated a scrappy, prickly undergrad as decently and respectfully as a seasoned academic proper. And at this stage of my Dead Pony tour, they continue to do so.

Their staff and dedicated associates brought home the news that Ireland may have an earlier Mesolithic than we first thought, with Dr Ruth Carden’s discovery of a butchered bear patella, found a century ago near Castlebar, the assemblage slumbering until looked at with fresh eyes. Everyone who looks, I‘m convinced, finds their own NMI, their own story. And each of those stories, gentle reader, is YOUR story. How your ancestors got here. How they survived. Why you are here. ‘Cos, hey – that’s what heritage is, kids. Not a stagnant musty thing, but people, the land, their animals, their music, speech, stories.

 

And those are some of the reasons I love this country’s museum. Those are tiny glimpses at ‘my’ NMI.  You need to find yours. It’s your university students, carefully looking and analysing in small rooms; it’s the passionate layperson, showing up to learn more, just in case the earth churns up a dollop of the past on their dog walk and they’ll know the right things to do because they went to public lectures in the museum. It’s your kids, crowded into an education room or two, with heads full of amazement at the stuff they’ve just seen, with questions rushing at curators like a fresh tide on a new beach. A room is not just a room. It’s a place where times and peoples meet. It’s the world between worlds where everything is possible.

 

If that isn’t more important than tea room space for a pack of politicians, I’m sorry , I don’t know what is.

 

Please, sign the petition here https://www.change.org/p/minister-for-arts-and-heritage-heather-humphries-a-plea-to-the-dail-rethink-the-relocation-of-the-seanad-in-the-nmi-education-rooms?recruiter=42645642&utm_source=share_petition&utm_medium=facebook&utm_campaign=share_for_starters_page&utm_term=des-lg-google-no_msg if you can, and share. Thank you.

Dirty Money:why should I care about the past, then?

I’ve no idea if the Chinese really do have a blessing, requesting that you live through interesting times, or if it’s just so much more internet. But we sure as hell are in strange times, and they aren’t good for heritage and education. Archaeology as a means of preserving the past, telling the stories we can learn from, is under threat from proposed legislation in Britain , we’ve witnessed events such as the murder of an academic protecting his site in Syria against beings which have degraded themselves so far they have lost their own humanity.

 

We watch museums become privatised, and even closed. Low morale, and even lower pay, instigated by whatever the hell you want to call the current political school of (lack of) thought in power at the moment, have made the heritage sector not exactly attractive to the public. We may as well be invisible. Irrelevant. Afterthoughts. We’re, umm… history.

 

Yet, people love the past. It’s the governments who have brushed us into the corner, as reminders of where we all come from and how we all got here. History can be manipulated for nationalism, fear, anger, but it’s very hard to do that with archaeology. Because once you are down in the muck, you see the debris of the town where once everyone lived peaceably together in; you see the scorched earth and battered rubble of the city which did not just fade away…. Earth remembers and when you stroke it gently with the trowel, exposing the memory held in marl and clay, it tells you willingly exactly how things were. That may not be the story you want to tell the public, of course.

 

But as I said,  people love the past. They love the gold and the bones, the cairns, tholoi and dolmens. They love the sun playing on the carved stories which may be graffiti or may be entire chapters of humanity’s lost history. I’ve watched my own kids in museums and I’ve watched schools, and their expressions of wonder remains unchanged despite all the swish electronic gizmos waiting for them at home. I love to tell them about the things and the places, mainly because I never fully grew up either from the ragged haired wee girl hanging out of a tree watching birds and drawing standing stones from a height.

Ballaghagen still from some Irish Language show on the BBC! Muggins there can be identified by red hair and waterproofs,giving hell to someone on the  right ;):

    I may be in this photo….

I know an eminent academic – maybe one of the finest I’ve ever met. His publication record is fierce and inspirational, and I was rather scared of him until I looked him in the eyes – there’s a wee boy still twinkling in there.  Maybe the most passionate archaeos never quite grow up. They need to tell the stories for everyone to know, though, I think academics in archaeology do themselves no favours. The writing in so many reports is brutally awkward and off-putting. You talk about the dissemination of knowledge being the prime reason for research, but it ends up being shared with the select few who speak the lingo. The average archaeology report usually consists of the English language being tied up, beaten brutally and tortured until it whimpers quietly for mercy in technical terms in a corner, just to make it all stop. The reports which the public could read, and be inspired by, are exceptions and ultimately precious. Our future hinges on those well-written pieces.I want to see people come into this business with high spirits and clear eyes, and still love what they see.

So I’m going to use this as a way of telling any unsuspecting reader why we fight; Why is the past important?  I’d tell them of the klutz who had a gut feeling about a part of a medieval site, but was made fun of that she was digging up a Victorian pipe, only to discover it was a Gaelic broadsword.

Final shot from continuity issues of Coast:
I might be in this as well…

I’d tell of the rag tag funeral for some unknown event after the removal of the sword from the soil, as a procession of trainee archaeologists made their way down a sweet green summer hill, one carrying the sword, the others going solemnly ahead with spoil buckets, cameras and plastic as the small crowd of tourists applauded, and parted, as if some untold story was finally ending, lacking only a sobbing piper’s music to loan some grounded soul the wings to reach eternity. Those sunglasses were glued on me for a reason, gentle reader, and it wasn’t hayfever. I was snivelling quietly. The past weighed much, much more than the sword did. That past was a town which sang a happy song of praise to shared wealth and prosperity and the devil take religious differences, until uprisings and injustices got the better of it. But that town did exist, was a small flash of good times in the sea of conflict and misery that is Irish history. We can do it, the happy thing, given the chance.

 

I’d tell you of waking up in a Bronze Age landscape at 430am, making my way to a bathroom in vest and pyjama bottoms and bare feet, across mists on an ancient trackway through morning mist, watched only by wary, curious wild creatures – the copper flash of a fox, the soft brown of rabbits, the only noise birdsong and the swish of feet through dewy grass. The sudden rising of a massive sun across a flat landscape heralded morning, and even the mist blushed pink and gold. Here was the wetland where tracks led to sacred places, what metals and memory were beneath my feet?

Dark waters, deep time….oh I love my bogs!

For that brief moment I was a priestess of Avalon and not a prosaic, grumpy middle aged oul’ doll in Primark pyjamas. Seeing that landscape as the ancients would have, still held transformative power. They saw Nerthus, we inherited the ‘spirit of dark and lonely water’ (remember that advert for lonely places?).. There’s a bog I worked on, Bohermeen, in County Meath, where children have drowned and on the retrieval of their bodies, they were not acknowledged as human – they were beams of wood. The real children had gone to the otherworld as themselves. Complete. That idea persisted from the Bronze Age to the 20th century, part of the fabric of who and what we are, whether its fairies we see at the bottom of our gardens or kelpies, trolls and nixies.

Places you go, things you see…it’s a hell of an office!

 

Each site brings new stories, and deep understanding of where we come from – the sad memento mori of the skeletal remains in a Norman graveyard, the silent stone circle where only hawks can observe properly, the booley hut, the wetland…. I am in love with them all, and you should be too. They remind us there is nothing new under the sun and the only thing that separates us is technology and time. I often imagine myself having conversations with historical characters, some I’d like, some I’d despise, but I can say that about living, breathing people today. Only those who choose to forget have no real future. Our ancestors understood the power of memory which is really the super-power of identity, be it the story of the green fields over the hill and how to get there, told by a Mesolithic fireside, or the satire sung by the 14th century troubadour. Me? I like that minstrel Jennifer Lopez ‘don’t be fooled by the rocks that I got, I’m still Jenny from the block – and I know where I came from’.

 

These days of people in power who would alter the past, I’d urge people to remember exactly where they came from, how we are all migrants, how we all drifted in from someplace; how that never stopped our ancestors from working together and appreciating co-operation. That’s what all those terrific stories of Mediterranean migrations you read on archaeology websites translates as. It’s one of the really great things about studying archaeology, you get to know how we all link to each other. That’s how we got here. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not. That’s what earth and muck tell you, and it can’t lie.

Household Gods: Where’s the archaeology of domesticity in Irish late prehistory?

In the current political atmosphere, there’s not a lot of focus on love, peace and understanding, so  I’ve been keeping myself cheered up a bit by thinking about domestic and peaceful archaeology. This is a bit of an irony, of course, as my usual research oozes hairy chested, iron necklaced  warrior machismo.

 

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The medallion man statement of the Irish Iron Age. Worn with skin-tight trews no doubt. Baybee…. what’s your starsign?

The use of the word ‘warriors’ applied to Iron Age Ireland is a bit too strong a word, maybe, but to quote Hot Fuzz, ‘ everyone’s packin’ round here.. Farmers… farmers’ mums…’ Two thousand years ago would certainly appear to be as bad as our own time, with too much snarling , jostling testosterone and not enough sensible ways to use that hormone. Seriously, could you imagine Cu Chullain doing something more practical than becoming the Incredible Hulk with all that eye bulging and fury? There’s sure-fire signs of the principle of comitatus, though, from the Togail Bruidne Dá Derga (likely a pretty tight recollection of hostilities in a pre-Christian Ireland, retold by medieval scribes), when poor old Conall Cernach ****SPOILER ALERT!!!!****** is questioned why he managed to survive the apocalyptic last battle. There are a few women who were scribbled into the pseudo-histories, Jungian archetypes such as Meabh, the ultimate Dame to Die For, where Frank Miller meets the Tain. There’s Macha Mong Ruadh, Scathach, and the Morrigan herself, all ambivalently supernatural, maybe a way to get round the idea of women living ( and occasionally dying) as equals in a boys own ‘hood, rare gangland godmothers on horseback. I like to imagine had they been into depicting humans back then, they’d have them all depicted as Red Sonja-esque bikini’d babes, about as realistic representations of women then as they are now, says she muttering cynically about battle porn. The Irish Iron Age as viewed by monks – boys will be boys and women lethal .

In the real world, however, found by cutting into mud and wattle some 2 or so millennia later, we discover very quickly that very few men or women were Irish versions of the Winter Soldier or Natasha Romanoff. I only know of one site which might – and I keep my fingers crossed on this one, as it’s currently part of my research – be a mass grave of that period (watch this space). The Iron Age blurs with either the end of the Bronze Age or the start of the Early Medieval period.

There’s scant detail of much except the enigmatic absence of agriculture, allowing land to be claimed by nature with scrubby woodland popping up around the place They call it the  LateIron Age Lull, they say it’s exclusive to Ireland.. errr.. I’m not so sure about that! We have only scraped the surface of ordinary everyday life in Ireland 2000 years ago, with most of what we know relies on random finds of pretty shiny pointy things made of metal, and excavations of sites like Teamhair and Tlaghtga, meaning that we only get glimpses of the lifestyles of the rich and famous – the Uí Cairdasíans, and their feasts, sacrifices and dangerous tribal liasons. Needless to say, history takes that as a sign that it was all heroics, but hey – someone has to make the sandwiches and cut the grass. All that hero stuff takes a bit of infrastructure.

 

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A plan of Lismullan, maybe my favourite site of the Iron Age, from Prendergast’s research right here: Read it! Tis good! http://arrow.dit.ie/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1004&context=arastbk

Where are the real, flesh and blood men and women of late prehistoric Ireland? Where are the families? We have the idea of relations being interred by the Early Medieval period in fertá –territorial ‘statement’ burial mounds such as the one made at the well of Clebach, when the princesses of Rathcroghan died shortly after their their conversion to Christianity by oul’ Paddy himself ( but you likely want to follow old foxy Vox Hiberionacum’s blog for more of that sort of thing). So – there were families. They couldn’t all be kings, princesses and demi-gods surely.

We have nothing like the intensely moving archaeology of domesticity like the remains of the Etruscan civilisation up in beautiful Tuscany. Wandering the tombs of Cerveteri, finding a stone bed made for corpses; it had stone pillows carved into it, with a painfully human touch – the indentation of an adult and a baby’s head scooped skilfully into the granite. It was as if they had just gotten up for night feeding, or to change nappies. I found I could not speak much for a while after that. Also in Cerveteri, the tomb painted as a home, with kitchen utensils painted on the walls, dogs and cats painted mooching for scraps of eternity, fresh fruits painted bright and ripe. It was a proper Italian kitchen, where the men were probably as frequently found as the women. Archaeology, why do you sometimes leave me with bloody great lumps in my throat?

I took this photo in 2011, in Cerveteri. The frescos in the tomb show ordinary, everyday life - this wee dog play-bowing I find ...well... don;t be stupid, that's not a tear, that's pollen. Or a midge. Stappit.
I took this photo in 2011, in Cerveteri. The frescos in the tomb show ordinary, everyday life – this wee dog play-bowing I find …well… don;t be stupid, that’s not a tear, that’s pollen. Or a midge. Stappit.

I blame the shiny La Tene derivative things, although I love them deeply. They seduce you into a world of myths and sail you off to Manaanan’s land of faerie on the Broighter Boat. I can’t help wondering if we have even really, really, looked for the archaeology of peace and stability. Or have we just chucked all the peaceful stuff of pots and spindles into the Early Medieval, ‘cos, Christianity. I’ve a horrid suspicion this is what’s happened with the alleged lack of ceramics in the Irish Iron Age, but man, sherds are sods to date accurately. Apart from who you prayed to, I’m suspecting things didn’t change a lot for quite a while into the Early Medieval.

My Masters looked at the pollen and charcoal of Bohermeen Bog, which exists between Faughan Hill and Tlaghga, making it a seriously meaningful landscape. Years ago, close to the bog, a little lares figure was found, chucked in the water by some unknown hands until it washed up in a river somewhere between Jamestown and Navan , Co Meath.

 Sometimes I put my hands up in the air...the Navan lar's funkeh little self Picture from the Navan and District Historical Society. They have also got a nice website.
Sometimes I put my hands up in the air…the Navan lar’s funkeh little self.  Picture from the Navan and District Historical Society. They have also got a nice website.

Now, I’m not going to get into the why’s and wherefore’s of a Roman statue being found in Ireland… that’s for another day! But there is something quite poignant in that deposition, when I ruminate, as I do a lot.A lar was a wee household godling, who looked after families and brought prosperity – not far removed from the Robin Goodfellows, Piskies and Brownies of the British isles. Someone threw out the baby and the bathwater into that wetland, for unknown reasons, but once, this little piece of bronze belonged in a home. A nice, messy, chaotic home, although more likely a middle class one – dat Roman import, tho. A home far removed from the stuff like chariots (of which we have found little to no evidence yet) and war horns which have bewitched too many generations of researchers. And I guess I plead guilty ( or should that be gilty?) to that bewitchment initially too, until I really got into the research and started to see the real people and their livestock, instead of their artefacts of war.

Maybe our evidence will turn out to be as gossamer fine as wools they would have woven by firesides so long ago, needing the loom of research, and tedium to build the fabric of life up. The spindles and querns are obvious indications of daily life, but I like to think that the few human remains found, if proven to have lived to venerable ages, are evidence of nurture and food and family. We’re all here, as a population today so the Irish Iron Age, by sheer force of logic, could not have been all battle drums. We need to step over the harsh faced stone idols and pick up the wee lares figure, clean him up, give him a new cornucopia to hold and set him near our academic doorstep for luck.

 

More lovely, lovely reading….

O’Connor, R., 2013. The destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel: kingship and narrative artistry in a mediaeval Irish saga.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Coyle McClung, L. 2013. The Late Iron Age lull – not so Late Iron Age after all!, Emania. 21. 73-83 Details of publication at :  http://www.navan-research-group.org/emania.html

 

Sadowska, E. 1997. “Horses Led by a Mare” — martial aspects of Táin Bó Cúailnge, Emania. 16. 5-48. Details of publication at : http://www.navan-research-group.org/emania.html

Story of the lares figure available here:  http://www.museum.ie/The-Collections/Documentation-Discoveries/September/A-Roman-figurine
Bieler, L (ed. and tr.). 1979. The Patrician texts in the Book of Armagh, Scriptores Latini Hiberniae 10. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies

 

Worthwhile blogs to mooch through…. irisharchaeology.ie and  https://voxhiberionacum.wordpress.com

A wee bit more about the Late Iron Age Lull here:  http://www.iqua.ie/Documents/newsletters/IQUA_newsletter_51.pdf

and here:

https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Gill_Plunkett/publication/225751793_Land-use_patterns_and_cultural_change_in_the_Middle_to_Late_Bronze_Age_in_Ireland_inferences_from_pollen_records/links/0fcfd50e57e90e1588000000.pdf

 

 

Y-piece and chill….

Sometimes I like to go to a particular corner of the Ulster Museum, where the Iron Age tack is displayed, and just sit there . This, on writing, looks a lot sadder than it actually is. It’s not a very ‘sexy’ área of the museum unless you are into later prehistory, and many walk right past it on their way to the mummy or the big flashy Viking swords. Don’t get me wrong, those displays are equally beautiful and important, but there’s something about the grace of the relief work on the Lisnacrogher sword scabbard, and the first hints of the ‘Claddagh’ ring design on the 1c type Y-pieces shown in conjunction with small pony bits that makes my heart go pittipatter. For most however, unless you have a certain proclivity for swirly martial things, it’s a bit of a forgotten corner.
The objects are subtle in their beauty, with something of an edge to them – swords, equestrian equipment, brutally beautiful jewellery all suggest wearers who were culturally charming, slightly vain and latently lethal. Growing up in the height of the Troubles, I knew many ‘godfathers’ who answered a similar description. Their hospitality and warmth was deceiving to those who weren’t ‘in the know’ as to who, or perhaps most importantly, what, they were. I think as I have gotten older I have realised that the parts of Northern Ireland I lived in were the places where hints of the Iron Age and the transition period from pagan Ireland to the early historic period were still kept alive by tradition and social mores

Y-Piece, Irish Archaeology, Iron Age, Metal Work, Horses, EquestrianismPeople forgot what objects do when technology gets rolling, and then make stuff up about them, reinventing a story the way they want it to be for their time, their place, or their socio-political agenda. Swords only gain mythos with such veneers of false memory; a sword has A History and a Destiny (and yep, those capital letters are needed for the

Jim Fitzpatrick - The dream of Nuada (1978)
When you’re 10 minutes The Tain and he gives you that look… / picture courtesy of Jim Fitzpatrick /

cinematic tone I’m using while writing!). People get all excited about swords because they think of Cu Chullain and warriors and Jim Fitzpatrick paintings, and truthfully, I’m cool with that. If the war lords of two thousand years were allowed to come back, living and breathing for one day, I imagine that they’d love to be shown with swords in hand, pumped six packs, writhing on furs with goddesses of unearthly beauty and flattening the enemy. Reality was duller, harder, lacking glory and focussed on survival as life always is; the Iron Age, in Ireland anyway, was thuglyfe, where revenge scuffles got magnified into legend. Not much separates the Táin from Tupac, only the span of the years.

But the horse stuff of the Iron Age -that’s a bit different. People forgot the specialised uses because cars, and engines took over, and horses are seen as pets of the privileged and not relevant to this brave new world. I grew up around horses and ponies, some of them not the sort you ever would place young Tamsin or Victoria on. Of maybe you would, just for schadenfreude, if you had a wicked streak in your Communist ethos. Those kinds of ponies were education on four legs. Some were young and dumb, some in horsie PTSD states from past experiences, some just plain mean. But they were the best teachers on the planet as to how, if one thing doesn’t work to make them accomplices, something else will. There’s a bit for every horse, they say. Our ancestors were no different n their understanding of that. If you want a willing horse, you need to find all the buttons that make it work for both of you.

As I’ve worked on this research, I find it pleasant to think of the golden ‘Celtic’ (cough cough) Age of Heroes being covered in stable muck. The people are more real, just like you and me. Living with horses isn’t all about galloping around – it’s the discipline to put your animal’s welfare first before your own comfort. Cleaning it, feeding and watering after a day’s work, even when you ache. Not very glamorous, but a nice life , enhanced by soft pony muzzles looking for treats and affection, with the calm of a good days work. But an entire re-imagining of the reality of the ‘heroic age’ of 2000 years ago started as soon as young monks with quills moved into the great ecclesiastic centres which spread across Ireland from the 5th and 6th centuries AD. No mud or chapped hands or manure on the carpet was ever allowed in that fantasy world. Absence of glorious distractions such as cat memes and live streaming presumably allowed them to write their re-imagining of folk tales and vague memories, making them into 2 AD Fast Too Furious. And so the great Irish myths were most likely born. Jim Mallory gives the academic talking of that talk in Aspects of the Tain. You’ll get copies from the Navan Centre, in Armagh.

So, while swords and pointy things are all kinds of archaeological and folkloric sexy, bridles and bits got forgotten, just like the horses who once wore them. I read a story once, ages ago, a Native American legend, of the old Coyote Woman who gathers useless bones together from the desert and takes them back to her cave. She lays them out as if on a lab Y-Piece, Irish Archaeology, Iron Age, Horses, Equestrianism, skulltable and sings them back into muscle and heartbeat and breath until they jump up from the sandy floor and run off into the desert again. Now, metaphorically that’s pretty much what archaeologists do to some extent. Let me tell you, it’s a strange thing when working with bits and Y-pieces, being able to actually feel how those animals behaved when riding out 2000 years ago. Feeling the use on the bits, you’ll know who leaned on the bit too much, who was a nice forward ride. Don’t ever let anyone tell you memory is an abstract thing and intangible. It’s real, for those who choose to look at it. Because what we use, especially the things we use over and over again, display so much about us.

A horse, of course is not just a horse – it carries a culture on its back. It’s a means of travel, a way of life, requiring a particular landscape and maintenance. The memory held of those bits also tell stories about the people who made the tack, from the people stoking up the gleaming furnaces for the casting in bronze, to the riders themselves and how they lived. You know those science fiction dystopian films, where a hologram flickers into life by accident in response to some accidental traveller in the ruins of a past culture? And the hologram tells of that culture’s peril? It’s a bit like that, working on this research.

When I sit in the dim lit corner of the museum, needing peace and quiet, I know what those pieces on display are used for, how they work. They told their stories, and continue to do so, them and their counterparts across Europe. They don’t sit there, unremembered or rewritten. The ponies stayed truthful as animals do, and told about the world, 2000 years ago, from their point of view. And by them answering the questions so well, they are now part of my memory of the crazy and sometimes traumatic undergraduate years and MSc times. They are now part of my own history, my memory. Nothing got forgotten after all, only delayed a wee while (and wait til you see some of the answers – but maybe more importantly, some of the new questions!).

Maisie Gaffikin’s Shoes.

I’m an awful one for getting distracted. Working from home this past few days due to being a bit poorly has allowed more time than I normally would for catching up with ideas and issues on social media. There’s been a lot of discussion about women in STEM, and it’s an interesting debate. That being said, I think of the  female archaeologists of the past and how we have chances they would have killed for. let me introduce you to an unsung hero – Maisie Gaffikin. Despite the most immaculate work of any human on Ballynoe stone circle, the rescue operation of Lyles Hill in 1937, the immaculate recording of ceramics found after winter storms in the early 30s, she was always referred to as an ‘amateur’.

I don’t know what she looked like, but her writing is direct and to the point. She was brought up in a castle, wealthy Ascendancy parents – I refuse to think of her as conventionally pretty, but as a strong faced and empowered woman, who would have loved the chances we do have today. In my imagination I like to think of her striding out, with a voice that would blister the back of the hounds she also loved to ride out to. This obviously says more about my alter-ego than anything, but husha! this is my imagination!

So, a bit of froth but with a big message – let’s have the courage of those women long ago and take on the challenges the way they did – by keepin’ our eyes on the prize  of good work, well done, played fairly and worked at with passion!

Oh, and yes – I did buy a pair of very 1940s style shoes recently, as a consolation for having relapses of flu. that’s where this idea all sort of came from….

Maisie Gaffikin’s Shoes

These feet are small but sturdy, and they’ve walked a lot of roads

There’s been a lack of princes, but I’ve kissed a lot of toads.

I slipped down off the beaten path as a fugitive to the past,

The stony hills and brambles – my footwear wouldn’t last.

So I bought some sturdy leather brogues, laced up, of fine brown leather

The sort of shoes that smack of hikes in any kind of weather.

Now, maybe recent reading had influenced my choice –

There’s sometimes someone from the past who speaks with a clear voice

down decades, wars, and social change can somehow change your views:

These were no red soled Louboutins- these were Miss Gaffikins shoes.

I’d read her work on Ballynoe, and caves in Ballintoy,

Friends with Jackson, Mahr, Van Giffen, all the hard core boys.

She’d trampled out the rescue  for Lyles Hill ‘37

Leading the charge with McGregor and, of course, Estyn Evans.

Her  name and work is plentiful, yet all she’s ever known

As ‘amateur archaeologist’ in the academic tomes.

Times have changed for good and bad; I ache for the dash and style

Of those 1940s paragons who raised our game by miles.

We’ve come some way to equality in this game of sherds and stones,

The adventures of the trowel don’t belong to boys alone.

As a woman in a PhD, I’ll think of those who came before

Who never had a chance at academia’s open door.

I’ll  try to take each step with courage, each triumph and each bruise;

I get to walk the whole damn  road in Maisie Gaffikin’s shoes.

Kintsugi: Thoughts on Mental Health Awareness week 2014.

 

This week is Mental Health Awareness week, the morning news informed today via a smug bald doctor who was so slick I could almost hear the rattle of the antidepressant bottle in his pockets.

At the same time, the Guardian ran an article about mental health issues ( http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2014/may/08/academics-mental-health-suffering-silence-guardian-survey?CMP=twt_gu) in academia which made my blood run cold. I initially felt dreadful for the people bravely interviewed. If I’d known anyone in my uni was in such a state, I’d have made sure they knew I was there to whine at, cry with or just lean on til they gained some second wind, enough to say ‘ I can and I will’.

I thought of a lovely friend who recently shocked me with their admission they’d went into academic meltdown. Again, I’d no idea, and that made me feel utterly awful. I’ve lost people through the years to despair, and am terrified, as I get older, of losing any more.

I’m a pretty unflappable kinda gal, and when I think of these things, I feel some trepidation at my own encroaching time as a PhD. I like company and fun, although often like solitude and silence too. But I’m not a machine, any more than you are, gentle reader. We all have days of just wanting to curl up with a blanket and tea and watch Star Trek repeats. We get days of terrible sadness, and probably equal amounts of joy.  We’re all made of flaws and fear, with a few dollops of swag and bravado chucked in. The workplaces I spent the longest in, and learnt the most emotional intelligence from, acknowledged these things and knew they made for productive, creative and vibrant souls. Valuable. Sometimes, just knowing the value of frailty, humanity and having equally fragile and human folks to laugh and cry with, who would think no worse of you for doing so is just enough to buy someone a tomorrow.

I remembered on the bus today about a Japanese art I’d read about once, the art of the broken and mended: Kintsugi. Possibly dating to the 15th century ( but very possibly earlier), kintsugi takes the broken and repairs it with gold-dust, or equally valuable sparkly material. Before it was broken, it was just lacquer ware – a pot, or vase. Pretty, maybe but mundane. The scars of the breaks are not made invisible, as people seek to restore in the West. They are made conspicuous, and valuable, part of the history of the object. No deliberate destruction and dumping in boggy waters here — the life of the object continues after it is damaged or smashed. It becomes more valuable by the flaws that threatened to make it useless.

It is not hidden, not hushed up. Not feared or rejected because somehow it‘s not perfect. The object transcends its damage, and becomes something as precious as jewels or gold. It survived, and the scars are part of the story of survival.

The simple aesthetic is that it through damage and repair the vessel becomes a unique and beautiful thing, complete in itself and more valuable because of its transformation and continuance in its new form.

I think the news should have told that story, and left the smug doctor out of it.