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How a lost shoe and Viking coins help tell the history of Glendalough

They’re on display now in a new exhibition at the National Museum of Ireland, which can be viewed online.

Image: National Museum of Ireland

A LOST SHOE, Viking coins and jewellery are among the fascinating items found in Glendalough which help to tell the story of the area.

Now, they’re all available for the public to see at a new exhibition in Dublin’s National Museum of Ireland. Together, they show visitors how Glendalough became the revered spiritual and tourist location it now is. 

Glendalough is one of Ireland’s best-known medieval monastic sites, and the exhibition Glendalough: Power, Prayer and Pilgrimage features 24 objects, spanning a period of 1,200 years – all of which are being exhibited for the first time. Though the museum had to close under the Level 3 restrictions, the exhibition can be enjoyed online.

The items were found over the past century and a half, from ones located during antiquarian digs to others stumbled across by members of the public. The remainder were found during the UCD-led research archaeological excavations undertaken at Glendalough since the 1950s.

Since it was founded by St Kevin in the late 6th century, Glendalough has been a place where people have gone to seek isolation and healing. The organisers say that this makes the timing of the opening, during the Covid-19 pandemic, “particularly pertinent”.

Glendalough might have been a place of pilgrimage, but it was also a place of massive political struggle – in fact, the exhibition compares what went on to Game of Thrones.

The curator of Glendalough: Power, Prayer and Pilgrimage is Matthew Seaver. He is also the assistant keeper at the National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology and, in the past, worked on the UCD-led excavation of Glendalough. He took TheJournal.ie on a tour of the exhibition, and had some fascinating stories to share. 

History through objects

bell Source: National Museum of Ireland

Each of the items in the exhibition has a story to tell. This bronze coated iron hand-bell, pictured above, is dated to the 8th / 9th century AD, and was found at a site near Glendalough. It was recently donated to the National Museum of Ireland by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland Diarmuid Martin, on behalf of the diocese.

“Hand bells, along with croziers, are the most significant early Christian objects because they symbolise the power of abbots and bishops in the church,” explained Matt Seaver. “They’re not only used for dividing the day up and ringing in the times for prayer and work, but they’re also used for things like defining the boundaries of the monastery.”

They were also used for even more intriguing purposes, said Seaver. “One monk went round Glendalough with his bell, and he sang maledictory songs against the demons and cast them out of the glen. So it’s kind of territorial marking. The extent to the monastery was said to be the limit of the sound of the bell.”

When found, this bell pictured above wasn’t complete – it’s since been conserved with a technique using Japanese paper and wood pulp, which helps it look in one piece but also keeps it from further disintegrating. 

cross Source: National Museum of Ireland

Another interesting object that is this tiny jet cross. It’s tiny but has an interesting history.

There are only three of these jet crosses in Ireland and they’re very rare, said Seaver. A scanning electron microscope was used to determine that the cross was made of jet from Whitby.

“It’s got a tiny perforation, and it’s got little cut marks which are filled with lead. It comes from Whitby or York sometime in the 12th century, all the way to Glendalough, and it was found on excavation by someone who was sieving soil all day long,” said Siever.

The person doing the sieving during an archaeological dig was a community volunteer, who was picking out items and asking “is this something?”.

“He said ‘is this something?’ and we said ‘yes, absolutely!” said Seaver of the moment the cross was found.

It’s thought this cross was worn by a pilgrim as a mark of private devotion.

It’s a rare find, and is displayed alongside a fragment of a porphyry tile, a stone quarried in the eastern Mediterranean.

The tile fragment was recovered during the excavation of one of the most remote sites in the Glendalough valley in 1958. It’s thought to have been taken from a building in Rome or from a Roman building in Europe and carried back to Glendalough by a cleric and used as a mark of authority.

bell Source: National Museum of Ireland

This late 11th/early 12th century bell above, the earliest in Ireland, was suspended for rope-ringing in a belfry at St Kevin’s Church. It’s believed it was imported from England or north-western Europe.

“It’s an 11th century bell. It’s the first bell in Ireland to be rung with a rope,” said Seaver. “It’s kind of unique in its class. It comes probably from Germany, or from the northeast of England, and it travelled along those seaways, the same seaways that monks from Ireland were travelling to go to the continent to found monasteries. And it shows the reach of Glendalough at that time in the 11th century.”

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shoe The lost shoe. Source: National Museum of Ireland

Then there’s the lost shoe, which they believe was swallowed up by a bog in the 10th century, and belonged to a pilgrim. It was found over a thousand years later by a passer-by and reported to the National Museum of Ireland.

“It dates to the 10th/11th century,” said Seaver. “It’s a woman’s shoe, and it was described by the specialist [who examined it] as being well made, and ‘probably high status, but worn to death’ were his words. This may have been someone’s only pair of good shoes and they went and lost it in the bog.”

What’s particularly notable about this shoe is that it sheds some light on the lives of women in Glendalough. “The important thing about it is there are few references to women in the annalistic records of Glendalough,” said Seaver. “Women were not mentioned but they’re clearly there in large numbers. Archaeology can address that to some extent, and look at those kind of things.”

Also in the exhibition are silver coins found by two young boys which were discovered in the 1980s; decorated cloak pins and pottery; a Viking coin with Sitric Rex on it; and early railway travel posters and souvenir ceramics from when Glendalough became an important tourism destination.

The Viking items help to illustrate how the Vikings came to Glendalough four times – the first time to plunder, and the remaining times as part of dynastic alliances (hence the Game of Thrones references). 

penny Source: National Museum of Ireland

The coin of Sitric, above, is the first Irish coinage. “It indicates ordinary people in Glendalough were probably carrying out transactions with single coins and paying for things,” said Seaver.

“Which doesn’t sound that odd, only that we don’t have coinage in the rest of Ireland at the time. Coinage is only being used in certain ecclesiastical sites and the Viking towns, really only Dublin and the interland around it, say parts of Westmeath. So that’s a significant object and it separates Glendalough out from other places in the countryside.”

It also shows how tied Glendalough was to Dublin and using the port there. 

gaming-board Source: National Museum of Ireland

Finally, one of the quirkier items on display is a board game called Merrills, which was scratched onto the flat rock above.

“It’s often found scratched at church sites, so you can imagine some bored people in the 13th century playing Merrills. As well as being an item which shows fun, it also shows people here were involved with learning,” said Seaver.

Visit the National Museum of Ireland’s website for more information on opening times.

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