Antiquities found by the public ‘filled gaps in collections’ – museum curator

·3 min read

Antiquities found in the ground by members of the public in Northern Ireland have helped fill gaps in museum collections, a curator has said.

Some 24 items have been found to be treasure over the last 10 years, according to a Freedom of Information Act response.

Under the Treasure Act, objects are to be reported to the Coroner’s Service before an inquest is held to determine whether or not they are treasure.

The PA news agency can reveal that all 24 items were acquired by National Museums Northern Ireland (NMNI).

Two Roman rings and a section of a belt buckle were found by a member of the public at Murlough in 2014 (NMNI/PA)
Two Roman rings and a section of a belt buckle were found by a member of the public at Murlough in 2014 (NMNI/PA)

A number of these are currently on display at the Ulster Museum in Belfast.

NMNI curator of archaeology Dr Greer Ramsey said they had “significantly filled gaps in our collection”.

He said what they receive is “luck of the draw” as people find items, but he described it as a “major and significant part of our work”.

“There is no doubt they have added significantly to our collections,” he said.

Dr Ramsey highlighted two pieces of gold jewellery dating to the Bronze Age found close to Downpatrick, Co Down and Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh, a Roman board found at Murlough in Co Down and a Viking silver arm ring found close to Ballinderry in Co Antrim as being of particular importance.

Dr Ramsey explained that it is rare to find bronze age gold objects, particularly such “superb examples of craft”.

One is a 3cm delicately decorated “bulla” likely to have been worn around the neck as a locket, while the other is a torc which would likely have been worn around the neck or waist.

Dr Ramsey said the torc is the only example of its type in Ireland that has been coiled like a spring, adding that at that time the island was considered the prehistoric El Dorado of Western Europe because of the quality and quality of its gold work.

“They filled really significant gaps in our collection and knowledge of Bronze Age gold jewellery working because they are two superb examples of the craft,” he said.

Dr Ramsey said the Murlough hoard, which has recently gone on display at the Ulster Museum, is significant because Roman material is very rare in Ireland.

Unlike Great Britain, the Romans did not come to Ireland.

Two of the items are gold finger rings while the third is part of a silver military buckle. All date to the late fourth or the earlier part of the fifth century AD.

As to how they ended up on the Irish coastline, Dr Ramsey said they can only speculate that they could have belonged to a British migrant, trader or a returning Irish man who had been living in Roman lands or served in their army.

Alternatively it is possible they belonged to someone returning home who was washed up or buried near the shore.

Northern Ireland treasure hunters
Treasure hunter Michael Thompson holding a folded Viking age silver arm-ring he found in the Ballinderry area of Co Antrim using a metal detector (PA)

Meanwhile, one of the latest finds to come to the museum is a silver Viking arm-ring which was found by Michael Thompson in Ballinderry, Co Antrim in 2018.

Dr Ramsey said Viking items are unusual in Northern Ireland compared to the Republic where there were settlements in Dublin and Waterford.

He said it could be brought to the Ulster Museum for display.

“The largest Viking burial outside Scandinavia is in Dublin but when you get into the northern part of Ireland, Viking objects are much rarer so when they turn up, it’s really significant,” he said.

Annals kept by monks in 800-1000 record a Viking fleet on Lough Neagh, close to where the arm ring was found.

He described the Vikings as having a love of silver, adding that arm rings would have had a dual purpose as both attractive items of jewellery but also used as currency, with someone pieces being “hacked off” to use as currency.

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