One of the most exciting archaeological finds in the history of Irish art was unearthed on Tipperary's Derrynaflan Island by a man and his son using metal detectors.
Uncovered in 1980, the Derrynaflan Hoard is one of the most exciting archaeological finds in the history of Irish art.
Derrynaflan is not a typical island. This tiny 44-acre, privately owned mound, in Ireland's biggest inland county, isn't surrounded by an ocean or a lake. Unusually, it pops from the Bog of Lurgoe in Tipperary's vast brown swampy peatlands like a vibrant green mirage. Nevertheless, by dictionary standards, an island it categorically is.
But what's especially interesting about Derrynaflan is the priceless buried treasure likely left here by the monks. Discovered just a few decades ago, it changed Irish law and turned out to be one of the most exciting archaeological finds in the history of Irish art.
Controversially, the little-known mystical landmass shot to international archaeology fame in 1980 when a father and son from the town of Clonmel, about 25km away, unearthed an intricately decorated cup and plate using hobby metal detectors.
The "cup" was, in fact, a 9th-Century chalice. And the "plate", an 8th-Century paten used for holding the bread during the eucharist of Ireland's medieval church, confirmed Nessa O'Connor, curator and archaeologist at the National Museum of Ireland. "They are elite objects with a very, very high standard of craftmanship created at the highpoint in the early Irish church," she said.
The silver chalice and paten are decorated with outstanding examples of ancient Celtic goldsmithing, O'Connor explained. Fine interlaced gold-wire work called "filigree", illustrated on postage stamp-sized intricate art scenes around the edge of the paten, is in a style distinctive to Ireland. The paten is also the only example of its type to survive from early medieval Western Europe.
A wine strainer and stand (for the paten) completed a priceless hoard of Insular Art (shared art style in Ireland and Britain around 600 to 900 CE, heavily influenced by the expansion of the Irish monastic tradition). "The combination of the objects is unique… it's a complete altar set," O'Connor said, explaining that burying valuables was common during Viking raids and the dynastic turmoil of the 10th to 12th Centuries. "It looks like it was deposited deliberately [by the monks] at a time of high risk." Archaeologists have since meticulously surveyed the island and nothing else was found, she added.
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Today, the Derrynaflan Hoard can be admired at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, along with other exceptional finds from the Insular Art period, such as the Ardagh Chalice, found in 1868 by a young man digging up potatoes near Ardagh, County Limerick. O'Connor noted that its artistry and style is comparable to the elaborately illustrated Book of Kells, which is "Ireland's greatest cultural treasure", according to Trinity College Dublin, where it is on display.
The natural conditions of boglands have proved to be freakishly good at preserving ancient artefacts. The low temperature, lack of oxygen and high acidity of the soil mean even organic matter can survive for thousands of years. A 3,000-year-old keg of butter was pulled out of an Irish peat bog. Bodies more than 2,000 years old have been found with hair and nails intact. However, before any get-rich-quick treasure-hunting thoughts rush in, Ireland has among the most stringent laws in Europe around metal detecting and excavation – and it was the Derrynaflan treasure discovery that tightened them, explained Sharon Greene, archaeologist and editor of Archaeology Magazine.
A seven-year legal battle between the Derrynaflan detectorists, the landowner and the government, which went all the way to the Supreme Court, eventually determined that the treasure hoard belonged to the state.
It means there isn't a legal hobbyist treasure-hunting scene in Ireland the way there is in other countries.
In the UK, specialist tour operators arrange treasure-hunting trips. "This is never going to happen in Ireland," Greene said.
The wrangling over ownership and monetary value of the Derrynaflan treasure resulted in practically a blanket metal-detecting ban in Ireland. Penalties for both unlicensed searching and digging are harsh. And any archaeological objects found by accident (ploughing for example) automatically belong to the state. However, Greene continued, nowadays, archaeological interest is less about personal financial gain and more about pride of place and finding that special connection with your past.
The Irish countryside has one of the densest concentrations of surviving archaeological monuments in Western Europe. "There are other bog islands and ancient monastic sites peppered all over the place," said Greene, who believes heritage sites should be accessible to everybody. While the vast majority of Ireland's 150,000 or so recorded archaeological monuments are on private land (needing permission from the landowner to visit), communities are successfully accessing their local ancient sites, such as megalithic tombs, monasteries, castles, stone circles and battlefields, through the Heritage Council's Adopt a Monument programme.
Visitors will never be far from a community's special pride of place that links it to the past. Since many of these hidden nuggets are often beyond even Google's search prowess, Greene recommend relying on the more traditional way of "enquiring locally" about ancient sites of interest. This means "asking what the go is" at a hotel, a shop or a pub in the area.
Croke, Tracey. “Ireland's priceless treasure hidden by monks”. BBC. London. 01 aug. 2022. 04 aug. 2022. <https://www.bbc.com/travel/article/20220731-irelands-priceless-treasure-hidden-by-monks>.
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