Opening the Ground: Archaeology and Education in Ireland

By Cooney, Gabriel | Antiquity, March 2000 | Go to article overview
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Opening the Ground: Archaeology and Education in Ireland

Cooney, Gabriel, Antiquity

Key-words: Republic of Ireland, Discovery Programme, Archaeology Ireland, schools, universities, postgraduate, profession


In Ireland I think it could be said that while archaeology plays an important role in national identity, this role is implicit and not very well defined. Images of monuments in mist or glorious sunshine and artifacts displayed as treasure or jewellery are very widely deployed. This constructed past serves a variety of different purposes for a rapidly changing present, from utilization as a symbol of the long tradition of Ireland's high technological expertise -- nowadays being best expressed in the computing industry, as a backdrop for the sustained (as opposed to sustainable) drive to increase tourism, to the context for a call of a revitalization of Celtic spirituality (see discussion in Gibbons 1996). More traditionally, of course, material remains played a very important role in the construction of national identities in Ireland (e.g. Crooke 1999). For these varied reasons archaeology is seen in a positive light, as a positive project, both by political decision-makers and the public. One illustration of this is the Discovery Programme, a government-funded research initiative set up in 1991 to enhance knowledge of Ireland's past through integrated programmes of archaeological research (Waddel11997; Eogan 1998).

However, unlike the writing and practice of Irish history, archaeology has not been regarded as a contentious discipline in understanding the past. It appears in the public arena as contentious usually only when an archaeological problem is presented as holding up development. This taken-for-granted view of archaeology (with an allied perception of archaeology equalling excavation) is the result of a number of factors, not least the attitudes of archaeologists themselves. Many of these factors are related to education and obviously the issue of whether we want to change this perception is at the heart of the relationship between archaeology and education in Ireland.

Here the primary focus will be on the Republic: of Ireland but with some comments on Northern Ireland. Deevy (1999) provides an important, up-to-date source of information on structures, government agencies, legislation, local and national organizations and education for both the Republic and Northern Ireland.

Archaeology at school

Archaeology features in school curricula at both the primary and secondary level across a number of subject areas. In the second level curriculum there are two multi-subject cycles, Junior (12-15 age group) and Senior (15-18 age group), which are tested by state examinations. While archaeology features in a number of the subject curricula, it is in the history course in the Junior cycle that students have the most sustained presentation of archaeological approaches and information. Here in the first of three sections in the syllabus, How we find out about the past, the approach is to use an archaeological perspective to look at prehistoric and early historic Ireland and one ancient civilization (Rome, Greece or Egypt as examples). From the point of view of archaeology this course is a major advance on the syllabus prior to 1989. However, it presents archaeology as the handmaiden of history (the archaeologist as a particular kind of historian) and the emphasis is on a cultural historical, metanarrative approach. The quality of the textbooks is variable and they suffer from presenting at secondhand what would now be regarded as somewhat old fashioned archaeological literature.

One of the major advances of the Junior cycle history course is its focus on project work, particularly in the first section. This has led to an increased use of the National Museum of Ireland and regional and local museums and interpretative centres and archaeological sites as educational resources. As a response to this demand there has been increased effort put by these institutions into educational services.

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