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by Gordon Kingston, Heritage Action

A 1400 year old, early Christian, brooch has been discovered in the ashes of a turf-fired Stanley range. The Irish Examiner, of February 4th 2010, carried a front-page report on what was found by a Kerry woman while cleaning out the grate;

“’What in the name of God is this?’ she asked me. I said it looked like half a donkey’s mouth-bit as they were always drawing turf out with donkeys. It was blackened from the fire, but as we looked at it closer and cleaned it up I had a good idea it was a brooch, because it was similar to the ones I had seen in books.” The article quotes Pat Joe Edgeworth, husband of Shiela, of Ballylongford.

Archaeologists are delighted because provenence could be established by tracing that particular load of turf to a portion of bog owned by Pat Joe. The brooch had survived, intact, after being dug up as part of a sod, by machine and then burnt in the fire.

The report concludes; ”The brooch is the latest in a number of early finds – including a hoard of Viking silver – which have been identified and acquired in accordance with the National Monuments Act by the Kerry Museum in Tralee. The brooch is currently undergoing conservation and is due to go on permanent exhibition in the next couple of months. Curator Helen O’Carroll said the museum was very grateful to Mr and Mrs Edgeworth.”

The National Monuments (Amendment) Act 1994

The same day as this report, on the find by the Edgeworths, there was a news item on the fall of a meteorite somewhere in the north of the country and a friend of mine expressed surprise that so many people should be up there looking for the rock. She had automatically assumed that, if found, it would be handed straight on to some scientists – rather than selling for several hundred euro an ounce, as the case will probably be.

This story provides a useful parallel, because it does feel a bit like that, approaching a sense of incredulity, I suppose, if we happen to look over, like my friend to the space-rock hunters, from our Irish way of dealing with archaeological objects, to the situation in England. Where, at times, it seems as if the whole affair is managed according to the attitude and ethics of a street market.

The Examiner article, for example, doesn’t state whether the Kerry couple got any reward, beyond the gratitude of their local museum, or, indeed,  the excitement and fame that followed their discovery. Under Irish law, that will be entirely at the discretion of the Director of the National Museum of Ireland. The whole treatment of the find is straightforward, with no haggling or fighting, no overblown praise, awards or talk of heroism, because the brooch already belongs to the nation and everybody is aware of that.

The relevant legislation for questions of ownership, declaration and reward for archaeological objects found in Ireland is the National Monuments (Amendment) Act 1994 and, as a contrast to the situation in England, I think that it’s well worth summarising some of its key provisions here: 

1. Under Section 2, any archaeological object found in Ireland is the property of the state; “…there shall stand vested in the State the ownership of any archaeological object found in the State after the coming into operation of this section where such object has no known owner at the time when it was found.”

2. Under Section 4, trade in such objects is illegal unless the state has waived the relevant rights; ”No person shall purchase or otherwise acquire, sell or otherwise dispose of an archaeological object which has been found in the State after the coming into operation of this section unless the object is one in which the rights of the State have been waived under this Act”

3. Under Section 5, possession of such objects is forbidden unless they have been reported; “No person shall have in his possession or under his control an archaeological object which has been found in the State after the coming into operation of the Principal Act unless it has been reported under section 23 (as amended by the Act of 1987) of the Principal Act.”

4. Under Section 9, if judged to be of “sufficient archaeological or historical interest”, such reported objects may be taken into the state’s own possession and retained; “where it is reported to the Director or a designated person that any archaeological object has been found in the State after the coming into operation of this section that has no known owner, the Director shall, as soon as practicable, take possession of such object and may retain it on behalf of the State.”

5. Under Section 10, if such objects are retained by the state, payment may be made to the finder, the landowner and the land occupier, but only if the Director; “is satisfied that it is in the public interest to do so.”

I look over at England and, perhaps I’m wrong, but all I can think of are the words of Sonic Youth, from ‘The Sprawl’;

“Come on down to the store,
You can buy some more, and more, and more, and more.”

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