‘Treasure Ireland’: On the Recent Recovery of Looted Irish Antiquities

Yaaaar, Me Hearties....

Image: Dunechaser – Flickr Commons/CC Licence

Fresh on the heels of last weeks shady shenanigans, today will see the display of 899 looted objects (the result of illegal metal-detecting) which have been recently recovered by the National Museum of Ireland. The details make for sobering reading. These are seemingly the results of just one individual, apparently operating within a single county, over a number of years.

What is particularly galling is something that may not immediately come across, i.e. the true extent of the damage done.    

Lost in ‘Translation’

The hundreds of objects represent hundreds of archaeological contexts & findspots which have been lost forever. Ripping such objects from the ground is an act of cultural vandalism. It results in the loss of the most valuable information that such objects can tell us, which is, the manner and style of their deposition and their relationship to the surrounding features. In addition, had these objects remained where they were they would have offered future archaeologists brilliant potential for dating stratigraphic contexts of sites.

The objects will now be studied as stand alone items in themselves. Despite being the product of 21st century ‘discovery’, they have been rendered no different to many of the nineteenth century unprovenanced finds on display in museums. Interesting examples of craft and workmanship, stylistically important for typological classification and development which provide us with an opportunity of viewing rare objects; but ultimately, they tell us very little about the people and places they were deposited in. Despite certain portrayals of archaeologists in popular culture, modern archaeology itself is all about people. If you remove them from the equation, all you’re left with are scattered crumbs.

Pieces of late

The story, like the events of last week, also provides us with a further example of the dangers of media irresponsibility in reporting such events; along with what seems to be increasingly pedestrian journalistic efforts. The news started to circulate late yesterday evening following a press release from the National Museum which provided background details in addition to arranging a media call for today.

A report in the Irish Independent then started to circulate online. Take a look at the two. The text of the Irish Independent report is largely cut and pasted from the NMIs press release; something which is not particularly unusual these days especially when it comes to subject matters which are scientific & technical. But if one actually compares both texts the only apparent ‘original’ content of the article (aside from calling archaeologists ‘historians’) seems to be contained in the following journalistic nuggets of knowledge:

No value has yet been put on the collection, but the most rare coins could be worth thousands of euro each.

Again with the noxious vacancy of oxymoranism. If no ‘value’ has been put on it, then why speculate with a figure? How can an item which cannot be sold legally have a commercial value at all? And despite dealing with the subject matter, the author has apparently not grasped the basic concept behind that being reported. At the risk of repeating myself: the inclusion of any arbitrary monetary value on recovered Irish archaeological artefacts is a dangerous and irresponsible act; and one which carries the potential of inadvertently encouraging similar looting activity in the future.

Treasure hunters in the Republic of Ireland need a licence to search or dig and are obliged, by law, to report any finds or face up to five years in jail and a fine of €63,500.

I actually had to read that twice last night. ‘Treasure hunters’.


Firstly, Irish archaeologists need a licence to do anything involving the excavation or remote detection/survey of sites using electrical equipment; in accordance with genuine commercial, research or rescue archaeological practices and activities. Secondly, archaeologists are not ‘Treasure Hunters’. Thirdly, do I really have to go there? ‘Treasure hunters’!? The very concept is not only anathema to anyone in the profession (what little there is left); it is also a stupendously immature and thoughtless use of the term given the story being reported.

Lastly, insinuating that there is some officially sanctioned mechanism for ‘Treasure Hunting’ in Ireland is not particularly helpful at any time, but in particular, the next few days of the story breaking. This morning sees all the above being uncritically syndicated and republished across the internet. The initial Irish Independent article already forms the basis for similar ones in the Belfast Telegraph and on the BBC. So not only do we get to experience of reliving the pleasure of such journalistic silliness, so too, will many more people worldwide. What a wonderful image of Irish heritage ‘value’ to be broadcasting.

Unfortunately, such an image will continue to be broadcast through similar stories in the future unless Irish media reporting on archaeological matters involving looting, theft and smuggling undergoes certain changes. We need to treasure Ireland and its increasingly ‘at risk’ archaeological heritage; not perpetuate an unhelpful focus on Irish ‘treasure’.

Yo ho ho…

Something to take solace in, however, is the close relationships and communication between the respective national heritage bodies and police forces within Ireland & Britain when it comes to trafficked artefacts. My congratulations and deepest heartfelt thanks to the Art and Antiques Unit of the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation; the National Museum of Ireland; The British Museum; English Heritage; Norfolk Constabulary and all those involved who helped to being the current matter to somewhat of a conclusion.

3 thoughts on “‘Treasure Ireland’: On the Recent Recovery of Looted Irish Antiquities

  1. Pingback: Croagh Patrick, The Irish Times and a (Digital) Archaeology of Appropiation | vox hiberionacum

  2. Pingback: Croagh Patrick, The Irish Times and a (Digital) Archaeology of Appropriation | vox hiberionacum

  3. Pingback: Irish Metal Detectorists Want to ‘Rescue’ Ireland’s Buried Heritage. By Digging It Up Themselves. | vox hiberionacum

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