Treasure-Hunting in Ireland - Its Rise and Fall

By Kelly, Eamonn P. | Antiquity, June 1993 | Go to article overview
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Treasure-Hunting in Ireland - Its Rise and Fall


Kelly, Eamonn P., Antiquity


Recent decades have seen remarkable finds of metal objects from Irish soil -- and equally remarkable consequences when some of those objects have surfaced on the open antiquities market.

The passing of the National Monuments Act in 1930 reflected the determination of the new Irish Free State to ensure the protection of its archaeological heritage. The legislation regulated, by licence, the excavation, export and conservation of archaeological objects. It also required that finds be reported to the National Museum. Statutory protection was given to National Monuments and the Commissioners of Public Works were empowered to place preservation orders on sites.

The Act was amended in 1954, partly in response to the illegal export of an 8th-century reliquary, known as the Emly Shrine, which was acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, USA.

The sale of cheap metal-detectors, during the 1970s, introduced a new threat. The law did not prohibit the use of the devices to search for objects, although a licence was needed in order to dig for archaeological objects thus found. The fact that offenders faced a fine of only Ir|pounds~10 encouraged people to ignore the law and made enforcement difficult.

There is evidence that many enthusiasts adhered, initially, to a self-imposed code of practice, which required that archaeological sites be avoided and finds of historical interest be reported. Early metal-detected finds, reported to the National Museum of Ireland, were found mostly on ploughed land or locations away from archaeological sites. By 1980 the trend had changed and it became clear to the National Museum authorities that most metal-detected finds were being located on archaeological sites.

The discovery of a hoard of early church treasure at Derrynaflan, Co. Tipperary in 1980 accelerated this trend and popularized metal-detecting. Of 8th- and 9th-century AD date, the hoard consisted of a chalice, paten, strainer and bronze basin. It was uncovered within a large monastic enclosure, a portion of which was a protected National Monument, by a man and his son, using a metal-detector. A finder's reward offered by the State was rejected as insufficient and the finders embarked on legal proceedings to secure the return of the find. In July 1986 the High Court ruled that the find, or its value (IR|pounds~5.5m), should be returned to the finders. The State appealed to the Supreme Court, which delivered its judgement in December 1987. The treasure was declared to be State property and the finders received a reward of |pounds~50,000. The ruling extended the State's ownership to include all antiquities of national importance, where the true owner (the person who lost or deposited the object, or their heir) was not known.

By the mid 1980s, although it was realized that treasure-hunting had become a lucrative business, the official response remained uncoordinated. Throughout the early 1980s the National Museum of Ireland acquired metal-detected finds, often via middle-men. Most appeared to have been found on archaeological sites. In 1986 the Museum became aware of an 8th-century bookshrine, found in Lough Kinale, Co. Longford and a processional cross, of similar age, believed to have been found in Tully Lough, Co. Roscommon. Both site are located in the Irish midlands. By then it was suspected that an organized treasure-hunting network was operating in Ireland, linked to private collectors and dealers. Concerted action to counter the menace was determined upon.

The first step taken was the setting-up towards the end of 1986 of a committee, composed of personnel from the Arts and Culture Section, Department of the Taoiseach (The Prime Minister's Department) and the National Museum of Ireland. Its first objective was to ensure the acquisition by the Museum of the Lough Kinale bookshrine, the discovery of which had recently become known. This objective was realized quickly and the Committee, turned its attention to the wider problem.

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