Archaeology in Ireland during the Last 50 Years: An Outline. (Special Section)

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Throughout the 20th century there were many notable developments in Irish archaeology, both academically and administratively. Already by the middle of the century considerable change had taken place, that was a time when new attitudes and initiatives were underway. It was also a time of economic development and social adjustments in the wake of World War II. The changes that took place in archaeology during the following half-century were extensive and varied and involved most aspects of the subject. The year 1950 is, therefore, a reasonable starting-point for commencing this review but this does not imply that a new and altered archaeology had emerged. On the contrary established personnel and institutions continued to play a major role, while some long-standing research projects continued. What is offered in this paper is a brief historical review largely considered from the academic point of view, it is selective and is not intended to provide detailed information about all aspects of research and other developments that have taken place over the past half-century. However, an attempt will be made to review the causes and influences that brought about such developments, but it is not a potted history, neither is it a review of intellectual developments.

Beginning of changes

There is a long history of archaeological research in Ireland going back for centuries. During the first half of the 20th century work continued and considerable advances were made, but during the latter half this expanded much further. In that regard an event of considerable importance took place in Dublin and Kilkenny during early July 1949; the centenary celebrations of the Royal Society of Antiquities of Ireland. The Society, under the Presidency of Liam Price, invited a number of international scholars to participate in those events. Amongst these were some of Europe's leading archaeologists, including Ernst Sprockhoff (Germany), Emil Vogt (Switzerland), Carl-Johan Becker (Denmark) and Johannes Boe (Norway). Cyril Fox (England) had to cancel at the last moment. Gerhard Bersu, formerly Director of the Romanisch Germanische Komission in Frankfurt-am-Main, who in the late 1930s had left Germany but then became Professor of Archaeology in the Royal Irish Academy, was also present. In addition, scholars from related subjects were also invited, such as Murray Fowler, a comparative philologist (Celtic Studies), from Wisconsin, USA. A couple of years later, 1951, another notable gathering of distinguished archaeologists took place. This was centred in Dublin and Limerick and was the Autumn Conference of the Prehistoric Society under the Presidency of Christopher Hawkes who was accompanied by his wife, Jacquetta. Amongst the many distinguished participants from Britain were Gordon Childe, Glyn Daniel, Stuart and Peggy Piggott, C.W. Phillips, Terence Powell and many more.

Both of these events were significant in the history of archaeology, not only Irish but foreign also. For instance, the Antiquaries' celebration probably provided the first opportunity for a number of Continental European archaeologists to meet since before World War II. From the point of view of Irish archaeologists both events offered the opportunity of meeting on home ground some of Europe's greatest archaeological scholars, and conversely those events allowed people from outside the country to acquaint themselves with Irish archaeology and archaeologists. As a beginner I was struck by the friendship and encouragement received from such distinguished persons on both occasions. Professor Spockhoff was most friendly and encouraging and I think that meeting with him encouraged my own subsequent studies of the Late Bronze Age, especially from the artefactual point of view. Amongst the events of the Prehistoric Society was a visit to Knowth where Gordon Childe, as always ahead of his time!!!, jokingly encouraged me to dig this `Deuteromegalithic site'. …