A week too late unfortunately, but I recently became aware of yet another soul destroying sale of important Irish archaeological artefacts – right here in Dublin. On Novemeber 8th last, in their ‘History and Literature’ auction, Whyte’s Auctioneers included two ‘Iron Age stone heads’ for sale, amongst other Irish archaeological items. The stone sculptures could be early medieval in date, particularly the one associated with Lorrha, Co. Tipperary, although the other one bears strong similarities to several other insular stone figures, now housed in Armagh cathedral, including the famous Tanderagee Stone Figure. Whether Late Prehistoric, or Early Christian, such artefacts provide extremely rare evidence of monumentalized ritual sculpture from a very early period of Irish history/prehistory (although, without proper context, they can tell us precious little else about our ancestors).
The provenance of one of them is given as In the ownership of a family at Lorrha, Co. Tipperary for c. 100 years. A hundred years ago: 1912. If they know this, they should have a good idea where it was “found”.
The provenance of the other is given as From a 300 year old house, Claregalway, Co. Galway.
These artefacts are scattered all over the country, in churches, in ruined abbeys, castles, houses, walls, side of the road etc. What is to stop people chiselling away at what surrounds them and then carry them off? Decency and a sense of heritage usually does. But, if people see there is money to be made on these artefacts, they may not last much longer in situ in the countryside.
It seems to me that the whole episode raises several important issues. The depressing fact that some Irish citizens seek to sell their own local heritage (which would, in any other circumstances, automatically belong to everyone in the community, let alone the nation) to the highest bidder; the slightly less surprising fact that Irish auctioneers are only to happy to oblige and profit from same; the more worrying fact that such blatant archaeological artefacts are being openly traded by Irish auctioneers with barely articulated, let alone dependable, ‘provenance’; and the facilitation of research provided as an aid to their sale by members of a professional archaeological body.
The next time you read a news report of yet another illegal attempted sale/theft of, or damage to, Irish archaeological features and sites, spare a thought for the likes of the above. As long as Irish archaeological objects are thought of and promoted as ‘commodities’ by some, they will continue to be targeted as such by others.