Ireland's Past Is True Gold—and More

Rebecca Shokrian
National Geographic News
Updated March 17, 2003

Among the treasured historical artifacts on exhibit at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin is a bronze-iron coated bell that is thought to have been used by St. Patrick and buried in his tomb.

The bell is an object of interest particularly as many people around the world observe St. Patrick's Day on March 17.

Despite the intensive focus at this time of year on all things Irish, most people know little about the long history of Ireland—a history that has yielded a rich archaeological heritage.

The historic period in Ireland from St. Patrick to the present accounts for less than one-sixth of the time that mankind has been on the island, Patrick Wallace, the director of the National Museum of Ireland, explained in a lecture at National Geographic Society headquarters in Washington, D.C., last year

Numerous peoples, including the Celts, Vikings, and British, have inhabited Ireland and left lasting marks on the country's culture and art. Many well-preserved artifacts at the National Museum show the wide range of these influences (see photo gallery).

Ancient Past

The shape and landscape of present-day Ireland—an island of 27,100 square miles (70,200 square kilometers)—were formed 10,000 years ago when Atlantic Ocean glaciers slowly began their retreat. The event left the country rich with the soil that has nurtured Ireland's flora and fauna for centuries, and which offered a hospitable environment for migrating people to settle and plant seeds.

Some of the oldest existing Irish artifacts are megalithic tombs that date back to the Stone Age. They were lined in stone and had passages that led from the rim of a circular mound to a burial chamber at the center.

A number of factors have left these and many other ancient artifacts in a fine state of preservation, Wallace noted.

"During the times of the Vikings, the tombs were ransacked. But because the tombs were created prior to the Bronze or Iron Age, they did not hold much booty, and eventually looters stopped" their pillaging, leaving many of the artifacts for archaeologists to study, he said.

Many of the historic artifacts that survive today lay undisturbed—some in pristine condition—for long periods because of limited land changes in early Ireland.

Until the Vikings arrived in Ireland in A.D. 795, the economy centered on cattle raising, which left the land widely undeveloped. Moreover, there were no towns—and related land alterations—until the Vikings began building towns, starting with Dublin in A.D. 840.

Bronze, Gold, Silver

Continued on Next Page >>


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