A n c h q e o l o g y
S p r in g 2 0 0 7 Volume 21 No. 1 Issue No. 79
0 8 The oldest church in Ireland's 'oldest town'
1 2 Could well be a mill
1 6 Rock art in County Clare
1 9 Know your monuments: Mottes
2 2 A greasy subject
2 5 Cattle crossing
2 6 Another Mooghaun bracelet rediscovered
3 2 Stuck between a standing stone and a hard place
3 4 Mind-boggling wetland discoveries
3 6 Living and dying in Glencurran Cave
4 1 Young Archaeologists'Club
0 4 News
0 6 Quote... unquote
0 7 Net news
4 3 Book news
4 9 Hindsight
5 0 Events
Controversial cocktails When politics, religion, sensationalism and archaeology combine they can constitute an explosive cocktail. When viewed in retrospect or from the sidelines, such cocktails can provide endless, virtually intoxicating entertainment. They can also, however, be dangerous and manipulative in the way they can bend public opinion, underpin propaganda systems (usually for nefarious purposes), fuel sectarianism, and even lead to hostilities and open warfare.
The summer of 1899 saw the commencement of 'explorations' on the Hill of Tara, Co. Meath, by the British Israel movement. Their aim was to discover the Old Testament's artefact parexcellence, the container for Cod's Commandments, the Ark of the Covenant. The object would then be handed over to Queen Victoria and the British Israelite interpretation of the Bible would be transformed into a literal and religious reality. The foundations for the project were the religious aims of the organisation, the reading of mythological tracts pinpointing Tara, and an attempt to give 'Anglo-Saxon culture' robust political, historical and religious roots.
The story of what happened on Tara during the following five years came to public attention through newspapers and letters at the time (see Mairead Carew, Tara and the Ark of the Covenant (Dublin, 2003)). The political backdrop to the story—Home Rule and the growth of interest in Irish 'cultural nationalism'—provides an emotional context for the events.
Opposition to the less-than-scientific diggings involved accusations of despoilment, defacement and destruction not only of the sites on the Hill of Tara but also of its symbolic cultural significance. Some of the big names in Irish politics at that point in time—for example, Arthur Griffith and Maude Conne—played a protectionist role in this piece of theatre. By 1930, long after the British Israelites had gone home, the case influenced opinion in the passing of the 1930 National Monuments Act in the Dail.
Viewed from just over 100 years later, many aspects of this story— seasoned with hoaxes, alleged hoaxes, parliamentary questions, armed guards and ambiguous motives—seem quite bizarre.
In recent weeks Jerusalem has figured in yet another bizarre story, amid claims that the tomb of Christ and his family has been found. Afilm director and a documentary director/producer whose work deals primarily with controversies in Jewish history have combined their talents to bring us this remarkable headline. The story, of course, is as convoluted as the Tara investigations, but similarly draws on some of the more fashionable methods employed in archaeological research: artefacts, experts in onomastics, statisticians and, of course, the coupdegrace—'DNA evidence'.
Curiously, if the headline claims were true, such artefacts would not be just another collection of human remains and artefacts to add to the archaeological record but would be powerful relics in the hands of whoever holds them. But perhaps the film-makers' aim is merely to muddy the waters with their own form of modern iconoclasm. Itwould appear that the chain of evidence will appeal to fans of TheDaVinciCode but cannot stand up to even a cursory archaeological scrutiny. Nevertheless, the headline lives and appears to have considerable currency in certain quarters. For the time being, it seems, the archaeologists involved in this media vehicle are firmly in the back seat while the publicists are at the wheel.
Such events demonstrate that archaeological remains hold an extraordinary potential both to arouse our interest and to inform us accurately about aspects of the past. There can be enough inexactitude in archaeology, however, to provide fertile ground for the exploitation and misrepresentation of the evidence for political, religious and commercial motives. It is worth remembering that when a media juggernaut starts rolling with a high-impact banner headline, it relies on an indifferent and gullible public opinion to fuel it. If in doubt, ask a question!