Ancient treasure or vintage car spring?


Would you confuse this piece of gold with the spring from a vintage car? Well, one accidental treasure finder did (pic from The History Blog).

The torc, which has now gone on display in the Ulster Museum, Belfast, was found in a bog near Corrard, Co Fermanagh, which as far as I can tell is between Maguiresbridge and the Belle Isle Hotel. Google Maps is fairly blank on the region.

Anyway, Ronnie Johnston dug it up there, cleaned it off, and kept it in a cupboard for two years until he saw a picture of a torc in a magazine and thought it looked like the piece of twisted metal he had stashed away. His find is about 3,000 years old.

A coroner’s court agree it was treasure, and it was subsequently bought by Northern Ireland’s department of culture. The style links it to other finds in Ireland, the UK, and France, so it may suggest a cultural or trade link with those areas, or even the possibility that the owner came from there. We’ll never know, much as we’ll never know how it ended up in a bog (an offering, I suppose).

According to the Press Association:

Many mysteries still surround this gold torc. In its present condition the torc could not be worn as it has been deliberately coiled, appearing rather like a large spring. But the torc was originally designed to form a large circular hoop with two solid connections at either end. These are believed to have acted as interlocking clasps to allow the torc to be fastened and unfastened.

For me the main mystery is how somebody would confuse something that is clearly gold and not at all rusted with a piece of metal from a car. Or am I being cruel?

Ice Age art

A few months ago I was lucky enough to get to the British Museum exhibition on Ice Age art, called “The Arrival of the Modern Mind”. I have to say it was on a par with the larger, much grander and more popular Pompeii exhibit, which was also brilliant.

Unfortunately I don’t have any photos of my own; snaps were banned, which is understandable given the delicate nature of the items and commercial rights of various museums. The main theme of the art exhibition was that the styles and techniques of the earliest human artists were strikingly similar to what we would consider modern art. Picasso, known for his abstract depictions of women, was heavily inspired by a neolithic carving of a woman; he kept two casts of it in his studio. The exhibit curators had also sourced recent paintings that had similar brush stroke and compositional techniques to our early ancestors.

Seeing such tiny and delicate things in front of me through the glass, I was struck not only by their beauty but their fragility and the amount of effort it took to produce them. Some of these pieces were 40,000 years old. One bone carving of a human with a lion’s head was estimated to have taken over 400 hours to create.


When you consider that these people were hunter-gatherers, and so always on the borderline in terms of starvation, that they would commit so much of themselves to producing such art shows that the human creative genius must have always needed an outlet. Whether it was for ritual or decorative purposes, these people had an idea and took whatever time was necessary for that idea to come to fruition. We tend to think of our ancestors as primitive, but they don’t seem to have been too far behind us in many respects.

I’ve noted previously how much people of the here and now and antiquity enjoyed having little objets d’arts scattered about, and our ancient ancestors were no different, with tiny little lion-men as well as water birds.

When you think about how little has made it to us from so long ago, it makes you wonder what will be left of us in 40,000 years apart from plastic bottles.

What is history?

It’s a fair and fundamental question, yet often elusive. When does something become history? Is by virtue of it simply happening, or does it have to be noteworthy in some way? For example, I had French fries and half a beer after work – is that history? And anyway, how far back do you have to go before something becomes history?


The discipline has evolved dramatically throughout the millennia, becoming more rigorous and scientific while striving to remain objective. Herodotus, in his work simply called Histories, is often considered the father of history, but our Greek history lecturer would say he was also considered the father of lies. Much of what Herodotus writes is myth, though there are historical elements and he does attempt to put it in a narrative. Thucydides is much more clinical in his history of the Pelopennesian war, but he is not as colourful. In many ways, the discipline has been caught between those two poles since then – how does one write colourful, engaging history that is still rooted solidly in the facts?

It’s possible, certainly, but is an ongoing tension. What needs to be sacrificed, for instance. Eric Hobsbawm was an excellent historian and wrote well, but his history is Marxist and so has a particular viewpoint (and his legacy has been divisive). That doesn’t make it less legitimate, it’s just another layer that needs to be acknowledged and filtered if needs be. All documents should be interrogated and history books are no different. We do it for primary sources – you wouldn’t take a medieval primary source about something like battle casualties at face value, for instance. Primary sources are the bread and butter of history, but shouldn’t be accepted without analysis.

The subject of my thesis, Bede, is a Christian monk. That doesn’t make him less of a historian per se, but his Christianity is so intense that I need to dissect what is fact and what is analysis, and in my case what are the connections between his history and his scriptural commentaries. I need to understand what was going on in his head when he wrote his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, and he didn’t see history as a separate genre from exegesis, because they were all part of his moral reform agenda. Does that mean that the Ecclesiastical History isn’t history? No. It’s just not a modern history book, even if Bede takes great pains to cite his sources. It’s a product of its time, like any history text (albeit a product that sometimes drives me half demented). A surprising number of people forget this when they go to read books from past eras, and sometimes take them at face value or, just as bad, dismiss them out of hand because they are older.

This is something my students struggled with. Actually, one of the biggest struggles my students had was distinguishing between fact and opinion. Objective analysis simply isn’t taught in schools, so when they came to me at the start of their university career most of them struggled. Some went on to do quite well, but it took a lot of work for most of them. I sometimes wonder if Bede and his contemporaries had the same issues while teaching (which I’m sorry to say I haven’t done for a while). This is all just a case of retraining the brain to think slightly differently, but that sort of retraining is constant.

My brain has issues with considering recent events “history”. Obviously, I’m not saying it isn’t. I studied modern history in school and university. I’ve written about it in book reviews and for articles. It’s enjoyable and informative. I’ve lived through a phenomenal transformation in politics, media, and technology. It’s all great. It’s just that in my head modern events are too recent to be historical. The further back you go, my mind tells me, the more “authentic” it is history. That’s a bit crazy, and yet that’s what feels comfortable. And yet I don’t think I’m alone, because people have laughed at me when I’ve referred to “modern history” – and you can understand why, because people associate “modern” with “here and now” and “history” with, well, stuff that happened ages ago.

For instance, the activities of Ancient Egypt, the land of pharaohs and mummys, pyramids and sand, and one of the most enduring cultural legacies. I’ve always loved Egypt and its ancient culture, yet it traditionally falls under archaeology. Does that mean it’s not history? No, it just means we have learned more about the culture from what it left behind than what it wrote. However, the two go hand-in-hand. While history is primarily the study of documents, the material evidence is what brings it to life. This is often most apparent in the field of classical studies, which are as much literary studies as they are cultural or archaeological.

One of my favourite courses in university (and not just because I got to know my now wife in it) was on early Anglo-Saxon and Irish art, such as jewellery and illuminated manuscripts. This was primarily art history, but at the same time it told us a lot about the time period. Lapis lazuli in the illuminations implied trade connections with the Near East, the material on which the words were written told us about what animals the monks kept, the style of writing told us something about trends and education. So when I turn to an art book, or look at a statue, I look at it not just as a piece of sculpture, but almost as a text that tells me what the artist and his or her society thought about the world. Even when you’re this guy:


It makes you wonder what future archaeologists and historians will think when they unearth McDonald’s signs and review fragmentary texts and images concerning Jersey Shore. However, it is increasingly the case that cross-disciplinary studies can bear some of the most interesting fruits. Some of this is down to a trend among funding agencies that inter-disciplinary research is best, perhaps because it represents advances in more than one field with a single research grant – and God knows there aren’t that many grants any more.

However, all researchers should embrace other disciplines if it means advancing their own work, or looking at the same old subject in a new and very different way. Some subjects go together surprisingly well. Liminal Entwinings, for instance, documents research by a geographer on pilgrimages and how they shape people and places. Pilgrimages are traditionally a religious topic, and so by extension normally fall into historical or religious studies, though they also have an enormous social aspect and they in turn have transformed the landscape (Ireland is covered with holy wells and rocks, a legacy of the christianisation of pagan areas as much as it being a traditionally Catholic country).

So as we go on, we see that all sorts of things are history, and that history is part of all sorts of things. And while we may have a fondness for a particular era, we can increasingly learn new methods of analysis and thinking from unrelated and modern fields. And that in itself is history.

Where religion and shopping combine

What do you do when you have extreme wealth, it’s one of the holiest times in your calendar, and you have a religious artifact in your country? Well, if you’re Dubai, you put it on show… in a shopping centre.

This is the Damascene Mahmal, a priceless treasure that was used to carry the black cloth put over the Kaaba in Mecca in the early 20th century. You’ll know the Kaaba by sight – here it is as captured by al Jazeera during the hajj, the major Islamic pilgrimage, of 2008:


The question remains, why would you put an artifact related to such a sacred spot in such a public place. Well, part of the answer lies in it being a public space. In the UAE, shopping centres are as much a place to go and meet as they are places to buy things, and given that Dubai has a shopping festival, believe me that the Emiratis know how to buy things. By bringing it to Dubai Mall, the centre operators are making it an attraction and elevating their own prestige.

For me it raises the question of appropriateness. Technically, there’s nothing wrong with having it on display in a shopping centre, where many visitors will see it during a holy month. It’s just not typical (unless you’re in the UAE). A more appropriate place would be a mosque or a museum, amid other treasures. But then that would be to take it out of its original content. The Mahmal was designed to be carried on a camel, so it is by definition a public ritual object. People are supposed to see it move through the streets. But if it can’t move, why not bring it somewhere open where everybody can see it?

Resurrecting forgotten talent


(Pic: Copyright Crawford Art Gallery)

My friend and fellow medievalist Shane Lordan is involved in a project to generate awareness of and appreciation for the Cork artist Samuel Forde. Forde’s Fall of the Rebel Angels is actually one of the finest pieces in the Crawford Art Gallery and if you are ever in the city you should swing by for a quick look. In the meantime, check out the Samuel Forde project and discover a short-lived genius.

Dancers from the distant past


If you’ve ever been to the British Museum, you may have come across these guys in amongst the various odds and ends of ancient Greece and Egypt. Actually, off the top of my head I can’t remember if these are Greek or Egyptian, but I love them all the same.

They’re just little terracotta figurines, nothing terribly fancy or pretentious. They’re the little knickknacks and decorations of ancient days, and they make them more tangible and accessible, because it shows how humans from thousands of years ago really aren’t that different from us. They may have spoken a different language and lived very different lifestyles, but they liked little bits and pieces too. But it’s the fact that they’re all doing something that I like the most. The horned fellow at the back is doing his best impersonation of John Travolta from Saturday Night Fever, as far as I can see.

I know a lot of this is down to how the curators have positioned them. I’m probably exporting an interpretation onto the horned guy; he could be angry and warding off evil or just a funny face for all I know. Overall, they have been posed into a pseudo-scene, but then again judging but the figurines on my bookshelves arranging these little guys into a dance act isn’t outside the realm of impossibility. It’s what they could have looked like while on somebody’s shelf in ancient Sparta, rather than necessarily what they did look like.

That in itself is an interesting question regarding the study of history. Generations of historians have been driven by the ideal that one should tell people how it was back then – but what if you only have scattered pieces? What is you want to show the modern world what their ancestors would have lived through? Where do you draw the line? Where would you draw the line?

Crucifixion corpus

While on the subject of digital databases, a project at my own university this week launched a collection of images and information concerning representations of the Crucifixion in Ireland between AD800 and 1200. The site, COIRP, is in its infancy but the team aim to update the images and categories in the near future. This should prove to be a great resource for art and cultural historians of the early medieval period.

The project, Christ on the Cross, has been studying how Irish art and literature represented and dealt with Christ’s crucifixion, both in an aesthetic and liturgical sense. The database takes its name from the Irish word for “body”. At the launch, Jenifer Ní Ghrádaigh, one of the investigators, said it was a play on corpus, the Latin for “body” but which is also shorthand for the figure of Christ on the cross as well as a body of work. Initially, they had tried to avoid puns related to corpus, but it was too suitable to ignore. They then managed to make it an acronym of sorts: Corpus Of Irish Representations of the Passion.

I was at a conference organised by CotC last year, Croch Saithair: Envisioning Christ on the Cross in the Early Medieval West, that was fascinating and intense. I look forward to seeing what else will come from the project.

A plea for palaeography

Most medievalists have been shaken by Kings College London’s decision to discontinue the chair of palaeography as part of its disinvestment in “sub-critical” areas. I can appreciate the reasoning: the university is going to see its funding cut my hundreds of millions over the next few years. However, losing palaeography would be an intellectual and educational disaster. About 4,000 people have  joined the Facebook group set up to protest against the move and to promote a letter-writing campaign to ensure the chair is retained. I’m convinced at least two people will submit their letters in a style like this:

Palaeography, at its most basic, is the study of reading and interpreting manuscripts. It’s a lot more complicated than that, though. In archives and universities all over the world are thousands of manuscripts written over perhaps 1,000 years in untold numbers of handwriting styles and languages. And we’re not even counting abbreviations, some of which are particular to individual schools in single countries (incidentally, using numbers in the place of a sound, a la text messaging, began in this era, if not before). At a workshop last year, I was told that the vast majority of manuscripts haven’t even been read in centuries, or at least not in a way that’s left some sort of academic or scholarly record.

Every piece of classical and medieval literature that we have left was recorded on such a manuscript. Think of all the knowledge, history, and books that we would have lost out on had somebody not been able to acquire the skills to read and interpret these manuscripts – and that’s not even getting in to discussions of wonderful illuminated manuscripts such as the Book of Kells, any number of Books of Hours (the list is practically endless).

This isn’t a skill that could just be picked up again in twenty or thirty years time with some new lust for the past. Go on, have a go at reading this page of Piers Plowman (as found on Wikipedia):

It’s also worth having a look at the Schaffhausen Adomnán, a manuscript of the Life of Columba that is unusual in that it was produced very soon after the Life itself in about AD700 – in fact the Schaffhausen manuscript (nobody is really sure how it ended up in Switzerland, considering it was produced on Iona off the coast of Scotland) is signed by one of Adomnán’s colleagues, Torbene, who was the scribe.

What a waste it would be to be surrounded by stories and yet be unable to read them. That is the future, should palaeography be allowed to wither away.

(Note: Life of Columba photos were taken by the ArCH project at UCC, which has produced facsimile editions of these rare manuscripts).

University’s medieval projects

My research (and I will start posting a series of research diaries soon) in part concerns representations of death and the afterlife, with a particular focus on how fears about and ideas of the end of the world influenced the writing of history. I am preparing a paper and article of the vision of Dryhthelm, who Bede, the Anglo-Saxon historian writing in the eight century, tells us came back from the dead. The vision itself is quite rooted in apocryphal and early Christian images of heaven and hell.

But while I am focussing on the Anglo-Saxons, the university’s Department of Early and Medieval Irish is working on a major project examining Irish representations of the afterlife. De Finibus (On the ends) has been on the go for a few months and the website provides an introduction to the project, the people involved and, in time, a bibliography of relevant secondary literature. The team is working on editions of key Irish eschatological texts, and also aim to produce a sourcebook of the main literature.

Over at Christ on the Cross, meanwhile, members of UCC’s English and Art History departments are hard at work evaluating Irish representations of the crucifixion, both literary and material. It’s just a small bit outside my own research era (the project is focussed on AD800-1200 and I’m meandering through the 700s and earlier) but is still of huge relevance. The project’s mission statement is here, and the upcoming conference on March 29-30 looks like it will be a very interesting one indeed.