Thursday, July 23, 2009

Experiencing the National Museum (Dublin)

While in Ireland, we also went to see the archaeological exhibition in the National Museum in Dublin. It is a very different experience to go through a museum with a three-year old. I had dreaded it beforehand, imagining a mad rush through the halls, but it turned out to be fun. It was like seeing the same old flint pieces and brooches from a new perspective - even literally. Something I had never realized before, the cases are too high for a small child to properly see inside. No wonder kids tend to get bored. So I carried Son piggyback around the exhibition and he showed a surprisingly long attention span when I explained him what the items were and what they were used for.

The first thing Son wanted to see in the museum were the mummies in the small Egyptian exhibition. When he saw the first one I could feel him trembling, whether with fright or excitement I could not tell. The other very interesting exhibits were the model of a passage grave - although to his disappointment there was no entry to this one - the replica of a Viking boat, and a real Viking Age skeleton. We also saw the bog bodies, which I found rather gruesome, but Son just looked at them in silent contemplation. Leaving out the gory details of human sacrifice I explained to him that these people were buried in bogs. Our son considered asked me several times why, and when no acceptable explanation was forthcoming, he answered himself: "Maybe they did not have sand."

Afterwards we have had many a hard discussion about what happens after people die. Son has expressed his wish to become a skeleton and requested that after death he will be mummified. He was very offended when I tried to explain that we don't practise mummification and insisted on it. He also made a little sarcophagus out of modelling clay spread on top of a small bottle. I had to make him a skeleton, and he very carefully pressed the eye sockets and mouth to the skull.

It is nice to have a shared interest, but I hope he will grow out of it and make a career in plumbing or something sensible like that.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Visiting Newgrange

This story actually began many years ago when Mares and I fatefully met in Leicester where both of us had enlisted to do MA in Landscape Studies. I still regard her friendship the most important outcome of that year. However, for various reasons I had never before visited her in her native Ireland. So her wedding provided me with the perfect excuse to travel to Ireland for the first time, and my family gladly tagged along. We had a superb trip. The Irish are extremely hospitable and generous people and we just loved every moment of it.

On the day after the wedding we visited Newgrange with the happy newlyweds. Newgrange, as you may or may not know, is a Neolithic passage grave mound near the Boyne valley, Co. Meath. Besides burial, the site is also associated with calendaric functions, specifically the observation of winter solstice. It is also a part of a wider ritual landscape, which includes the areas of Knowth and Dowth. Together, all these monuments are called Brú na Bóinne in Irish, and they have been designated a UNESCO world heritage site.

The entrance to Newgrange is through the Brú na Bóinne visitor centre. As it usually happens, we had to spend some time in the visitor centre waiting for our tour to commence, so we went through the small museum which illustrated Neolithic life in the Boyne valley. Son was especially fascinated by the human skeleton (a model) reclining in one of the showcases. We had to go back to look at it several times and he kept asking me hard questions like "why do we have skeletons?", "why do people die?" and "how did they get the skeleton out?". He would have also really wanted to play inside the replica of a hut.

To get you into the proper mood for a pilgrimage to Newgrange, there is a viewing platform in the visitor centre from where you can see the enormous Neolithic passage tomb outlined against the sky - weather conditions permitting. After the torrential downpour Mares and her GC got for their wedding day, the weather had turned beautiful and the view was grand. Standing there Mares and I reminisced how our landscape archaeology fieldtrips were always plagued with bad weather. Most of the time we could not see the landscape because the rain reduced visibility to a few dozen metres.

From the visitor centre there is a short walk to the shuttle bus station across the river Boyne. The bus ride took us along winding roads through Irish countryside. Once we got a glimpse of Newgrange in all its splendour - again in the proper pilgrimage fashion, as I remarked Mares - before turning a hedgerow and not seeing the site until we arrived to the foot of the hill where the tomb is situated.

I have been to some famous sites such as Stonehenge and been rather disappointed, but I have to say I liked Newgrange. Since it is one of Irelands most visited (unless it is the most visited?) archaeological sites, the stream of tourists and sightseers has to be somehow regulated, and the system with the buses and all seems to work well. Only one group of people is taken up to the site at a time, and there the group is further subdivided into two, so that half of the group get to go inside the passage tomb while the rest have a chance to walk around the site. So there are not masses of people around the site, which means you can actually see something, even if you are not very tall.

The restoration done in Newgrange with the glimmering white quartz wall has been much debated, as it has been called into question whether that stones ever were on the wall of the tomb like they are now. I am not much in favour of heavy restoration of sites, not only because they tend to imprint one interpretation over others but also because they, for me, somehow seem to take away the dimension of time, but let that be enough of the subject for now.

Luckily, inside the tomb there has not been much need for restoration work. The narrow passage between the cold stones and the high chamber in the end are almost as they would have been in the Neolithic. It is awe-inspiring to look at the stone roofing and think that the structure has withstood time more than 5000 years.

Son, who had been giddy with excitement going into the tomb, peered into each of the three side chambers and was disappointed not to find any skeletons. He found a small brass stud from someones jeans on the floor though, and kept it as his treasure.

By the way, I filled in an application for the 2009 Winter Solstice Lottery draw, so I would appreciate if you kept your fingers crossed for me.