London’s largest Bronze Age hoard found

October 22nd, 2019

A Bronze Age hoard discovered at a site overlooking the River Thames in east London is going on display for the first time at the Museum of London Docklands. Containing 453 assorted bronze objects, the hoard dates to between 900 and 800 B.C. Objects in the hoard include axe heads, spearheads, tools and fragments of blades from swords, daggers and knives. There are two very rare and unusual pieces in the assemblage: decorated terret rings from horse harnesses. This is the third largest Bronze Age hoard ever discovered in the UK and the largest found in London.

The hoard was found during an archaeological survey of a site slated for gravel extraction in Rainham in the London Borough of Havering on September 21st, 2018. The site was known to have Bronze Age features from aerial photographs taken in the 1960s. Earthworks, field systems and an enclosure could be identified in the shots, and archaeological excavations confirmed the presence of numerous Bronze Age sites. It was a crop marking on the site that spurred the archaeological investigation in advance of development.

Almost all of the objects are damaged. Only 77 of the 453 are intact, most of them axe heads. There is no indication of why they were assembled and buried together in a pit.

“We do have quite a few weapons, a lot of tools that relate to woodworking, so gouges, chisels, things like that, [and] we have a lot of objects that are used in metal working – like ingots that would be melted down to be able to cast the bronze tools and weapons,” said [Kate Sumnall, curator of the exhibition], adding that while the hoard included bracelets there was otherwise little jewellery. Intriguingly some items, including a number of woodworking axes, are more typical of elsewhere in Europe.

“Our site is not a little isolated site, it is much part of a bigger European connection, with a lot of trade, a lot of movement, a lot of communication of ideas and also of goods as well,” said Sumnall, adding that the axes appeared to have crossed the Channel. “Either it is trading or it is people coming across, bringing their own stuff with them.”

According to Sumnall there are myriad possible explanations for the hoard, ranging from it being an offering to gods to being a rubbish pile of bronze goods that were thrown away as iron took over as the metal of choice. Another suggestion is that it could have been the stash of a travelling metalworker who travelled from settlement to settlement.

The hoard was declared treasure at a coroner’s inquest in July of this year. The age and number of artifacts guaranteed that outcome. The Museum of London then acquired the hoard.

It will go on display in a dedicated exhibition at the Museum Of London Docklands from April 3rd through October 25th, 2020. After that, it will move to the Havering Museum, a cool community-focused museum that opened in 2010 in a renovated historic brewery near the hoard’s find site.

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World’s oldest pearl found in Abu Dhabi

October 21st, 2019

The oldest pearl in the world is going on public display for the first time at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. It was discovered in 2017 at the site of a Neolithic settlement on Marawah Island off the western coast of Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE). The pearl was radiocarbon dated to between 5800 and 5600 B.C. The lustrous natural pearl is less than three millimeters in diameter and is a pink in tone. It was found on the floor of a stone structure.

Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, Chairman of [Department of Culture and Tourism] Abu Dhabi, said, “The Abu Dhabi Pearl is a stunning find, testimony to the ancient origins of our engagement with the sea. The discovery of the oldest pearl in the world in Abu Dhabi makes it clear that so much of our recent economic and cultural history has deep roots that stretch back to the dawn of prehistory. Marawah Island is one of our most valuable archaeological sites, and excavations continue in the hope of discovering even more evidence of how our ancestors lived, worked and thrived.” […]

Collapsed stone structures from Neolithic era on Marawah Island archaeological site. Photo courtesy Department of Culture and Tourism Abu Dhabi.The Neolithic sites on the island of Marawah were first identified in 1992 during a survey carried out by the Abu Dhabi Islands Archaeological Survey, ADIAS. Subsequent excavations have shown them to include numerous collapsed stone structures, the earliest architecture yet discovered in the UAE. Aside from the priceless Abu Dhabi Pearl, significant finds from the key Marawah site have included an imported ceramic vase from the ‘Ubaid civilisation in Mesopotamia (Iraq), beautifully worked flint arrowheads and shell and stone beads. Numerous painted plaster vessel fragments were also discovered and represent the earliest known decorative art yet discovered in the UAE. At the beginning of 2020, a major new excavation will take place to uncover more of the settlement.

To be clear, it’s not the oldest pearl ever formed. There are fossils of pearls dating back to the Cretaceous (145-65 million years ago). It’s their interaction with humans that is comparatively young, and little wonder given how well-concealed they are. The Abu Dhabi is the oldest known pearl found in an archaeological context and therefore the earliest known evidence of pearling anywhere in the world. The previous record-holder for oldest archaeological pearl, unearthed at a Neolithic site in Umm Al Quwain (also in the UAE) was radiocarbon dated to ca. 5500 B.C. That pearl was even smaller — about 1.7 mm in diameter — and was found in a burial placed above the upper lip of the deceased. 

Diving for pearls was dangerous and difficult work, but pearls and mother-of-pearl objects have been found at multiple Neolithic sites on the Arabian Peninsula. The former had ritual and aesthetic value; the latter was necessary to make fish hooks to catch large fish. Archaeologists believe they were also important trade items, bartered, for example, with Mesopotamia in exchange for decorative ceramics like the one found at Marawah. Pearling remained a crucial element of the economy of Arabian Gulf communities for thousands of years. Abu Dhabi was a center of traditional pearl diving and trade well into the 20th century.

The pearl will be part of the 10,000 Years of Luxury exhibition, the first museum exhibition dedicated to the history of luxury in the Middle East. It runs from October 30th through February 18th, 2020.

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30 painted wooden coffins found in Luxor

October 20th, 2019

A cache of 30 exquisitely painted wood coffins have been unearthed at the ancient necropolis of Asasif on the west bank of the Nile in Luxor. The sarcophagi were found one meter (3.2 feet) under the surface. They had been carefully stacked in two rows and are in excellent condition, the colors vivid, the lids still sealed and the contents well-preserved.

Asasif necropolis, located in the ancient site of West Thebes, includes tombs dating back to the Middle, New Kingdom and the Late Periods (1994 B.C. to 332 B.C.). This was not a tomb, however. This is a cachette of coffins, meaning the group was deliberately hidden (cacher means “to hide” in French) to deter grave robbers. It is only the fourth large cachette ever discovered, and the previous three were found over a century ago. They were buried in the mountain beneath a cliff in Deir al-Bahari, not in a tomb, and obviously it was an excellent choice of location because the sarcophagi were never looted and the dry environment has kept them pristine.

The coffins are believed to date to the 22nd Dynasty, some 3,000 years ago, and belonged to a single family of important priests to the gods Amun and Khonsu, the chief deities of Thebes (modern-day Luxor). There are men, women and children, each individually mummified, wrapped and placed in elaborately carved and painted coffins. The sarcophagi are richly decorated with hieroglyphics, figures of people and deities, birds, snakes, lotus flowers in vivid white, yellow, red, green, blue and black. There are scenes from the Book of the Dead, offerings to pharaohs and inscriptions identifying the deceased including one named individual who was a singer to the god Amun.

“It is the first large human coffin cache ever discovered since the end of the 19th century,” the Egyptian antiquities minister, Khaled El-Enany, was quoted as saying during a ceremony in Luxor.

It’s also the first sarcophagus cache ever unearthed by a team of Egyptian archaeologists. The other large chachette finds — one discovered Deir al-Bahari in 1881, one in the tomb of King Amenhotep II “KV35” in 1898 and one at Bab al-Gusus in 1891 — were made by foreign missions.

The sarcophagi will be transferred to the  Grand Egyptian Museum, the new museum near the pyramids of Giza scheduled to open next year.

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Herculaneum and its papyri live on video

October 19th, 2019

During the first excavation of the Villa dei Papyri in Herculaneum, the team unearthed the villa’s entire library, more than 1,800 scrolls still tightly rolled and neatly stacked in shelves. That was in 1754, 1,675 years after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius instantly carbonized organized material in clouds of superheated gases and ash and then buried the city in 60 feet of hard volcanic rock. The volcano destroyed the city, and at the same time preserved the only complete ancient library in the world.

Naturally scholars were desperate to read those scrolls which could contain a wealth of long-lost texts. Early attempts at unrolling the scrolls did identify a few Epicurean texts, but unrolling carbonized papyrus almost certainly results in its destruction, and the vast majority of the villa’s scrolls were left to the hopefully more tender mercies of the future. Non-invasive technology like X-rays and CT scans were deployed, but with little success.

Ultrabright synchroton X-rays has been successful where other imaging techniques have failed, reading erased works by Galen, virtually opening a 17th century mystery box and recovering the image of a hopelessly tarnished daguerreotype. In 2015, the power of the synchroton particle collider was first deployed on Herculaneum papyri. It was a test of the possibilities and the results were very encouraging, albeit limited. The work proceeds apace, however, and two scrolls from the L’Institut de France are now being scanned by the Diamond Light Source, the UK’s national synchroton science facility.

The use of carbon ink is one of the main reasons these scrolls have evaded deciphering, according to [University of Kentucky’s Professor Brent Seales]. Unlike metal-based inks, such as the iron gall used to write medieval documents, carbon ink has a density similar to that of the carbonized papyrus on which it sits. Therefore, it appears invisible in X-ray scans.

“We do not expect to immediately see the text from the upcoming scans, but they will provide the crucial building blocks for enabling that visualization. First, we will immediately see the internal structure of the scrolls in more definition than has ever been possible, and we need that level of detail to ferret out the highly compressed layers on which the text sits. In addition, we believe strongly—and contrary to conventional wisdom–that tomography does indeed capture subtle, non-density-based evidence of ink, even when it is invisible to the naked eye in the scan data. The machine learning tool we are developing will amplify that ink signal by training a computer algorithm to recognize it–pixel by pixel–from photographs of opened fragments that show exactly where the ink is—voxel by voxel—in the corresponding tomographic data of the fragments. The tool can then be deployed on data from the still-rolled scrolls, identify the hidden ink, and make it more prominently visible to any reader.”

You can learn more about the study of the carbonized scrolls, past, present and future, in a live-streamed discussion from the Getty Villa. It will be shown on the Getty’s YouTube channel from 4-6PM PST (7-9 PM EST).

Speaking of Herculaneum and the Getty, Buried by Vesuvius: Treasures from the Villa dei Papiri, the seminal exhibition at the Getty Villa, ends a week from Monday. For those of us who haven’t been able to make it to Malibu to visit this extraordinary assemblage of statuary, frescoes, mosaic floors and more than a thousand of those famed carbonized papyrus scrolls, the Getty will be broadcasting a special curatorial tour of the exhibition live on its Facebook page on Thursday, October 24th, at 9:15 AM PST (12:15 PM EST).

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Roman chariot burial unearthed in Croatia

October 18th, 2019

In a first for the country, archaeologists have unearthed an extraordinary complete chariot burial with two harnessed horses near Vinkovci in eastern Croatia. The metal parts of the two-wheeled chariot and the horses’ fittings date the burial to the 3rd century A.D. and it must have belonged to an extremely wealthy individual with a prominent position in the Roman administration of Pannonia. It was discovered in a tumulus about 130 feet in diameter but only three feet high due to centuries of erosion.

This is not only the sole chariot burial ever archaeologically excavated in Croatian soil, but it’s also the easternmost burial mound. It was located along one of the most important Roman roads in the empire connecting the Italy to Pannonia and the Balkans to Asia Minor and has been documented in archaeological literature for 100 years. The family interred there built it to as a monument that conveyed their wealth and importance to all who passed on that busy thoroughfare.

The Roman town of Cibalae (modern-day Vinkovci) was an important one in imperial Rome. Founded as part of the Roman push to secure the Danube border, it was granted municipium status under Hardrian (r. 117-138 A.D.) and the status of colony (Colonia Aurelia Cibalae) under Caracalla (r. 196-217 A.D.). In the 4th century it was the birthplace of not one but two Roman emperors, brothers Valentinian I (321-375 A.D.) and Valens (328-378 A.D.).

It is no surprise that such an unmistakable feature on the landscape was struck by looters, but thankfully by lazy ones who never got to the exceptional chariot burial. They contented themselves with pillaging the two central graves which contains the skeletal remains of a man and a woman and were surely replete with valuable grave goods. The remains of a cremation and inhumation burials were also found in the embankment of the tumulus.

”This is a sensational, unique discovery in Croatia, as this is the first time in our country that this complex funeral custom from the times of Antiquity has been archaeologically investigated and documented.

Now, the long process of restoration and conservation follows, but so does the complete analysis of what’s been found. I hope that in a few years we’ll know more about the family whose members were buried in this area all that time ago, 1,800 years ago.

We’re also more interested in the horses themselves, that is, whether they were bred here or came from other parts of the empire, and what will tell us more about the very importance and the level of wealth of this family. We will achieve this through cooperation with domestic as well as numerous European institutions,” said Marko Dizdar, Director of the Institute of Archeology.

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Gold jewelry recovered from Elgin’s shipwreck

October 17th, 2019

When Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, tore half the sculpted marbles off the Parthenon starting in 1801, he also helped himself to tons of sculptures from other temples and a vast array of antiquities around Athens.

(He did not have permission of Ottoman authorities for this brutal act of pillage, just for the record. The so-called Ottoman firman he claimed had granted him permission does not exist even though all imperial firmans BY LAW were meticulously archived and can be accessed to this day, and the almost-certainly fictional “translation” that does exist does not authorize the removal of pediments, metopes, friezes, caryatids or anything else attached to the Parthenon, only to inscriptions and loose marbles from the area around it. In fact, a local Ottoman official went to stop him when word got out that Elgin was prizing marbles off the structure. Elgin simply bribed him to let him get away with it, just like looters do today.)

His loot was packed into 17 crates and loaded on to his ship, the Mentor, which set sail from Piraeus on September 15th, 1802. Two days later, the ship began to take on water and headed for the nearby Ionian island of Kythera. While attempting to drop anchor off the coast, the ship collided onto the rocks of Cape Avlemonas and sank.

The 12 people on board were rescued by a passing vessel. The 17 crates of priceless ancient treasures  took a little more effort to rescue. Elgin spent large sums organizing a salvage mission performed by local sponge divers that eventually succeeded in raising the Parthenon marbles. They weren’t able to recover all of Elgin’s loot, however, and Greek archaeologists have returned to the Mentor several times over the years to look for lost artifacts. Maritime archaeologists have found amphorae, stone vessels, Egyptian statuary, coins and a number of British objects including bullets, pistols, watches and a compass.

This year’s excavation of the site focused primarily on cleaning, documenting and conservation of the wreck itself. The team cleaned the surviving section of the ship’s hull and took high-resolution photographs of the entire wreck site that were then stitched together digitally to create a photomosaic that will aid in the long-term preservation of the ship’s remains.

The moveable objects recovered from the wreck include small parts of the ship — wooden pulleys complete with surviving sections of rope — and artifacts it carried like remarkably intact glazed kitchenware and a section of a wooden leg. The two stand-out artifacts are exquisitely crafted jewels: a gold granulation ring and a pair of gold filigree earrings.

Gold granulation ring. Photo by P. Vezyrtzis, courtesy the Greek Ministry of Culture. Gold filigree earrings. Photo by P. Vezyrtzis, courtesy the Greek Ministry of Culture.

Section of wooden leg. Photo by P. Vezyrtzis, courtesy the Greek Ministry of Culture. Wooden pulley with mooring rope remains. Photo by P. Vezyrtzis, courtesy the Greek Ministry of Culture.

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Bingewatching the Lost Dress of Elizabeth I

October 16th, 2019

The always excellent Historic Royal Palaces YouTube channel has three new videos about the Bacton Altar Cloth, believed to be the only surviving fabric from a dress worn by Queen Elizabeth I. If it wasn’t hers, it had to have belonged to a woman of the highest nobility or royalty. There were literally laws against anyone of lesser rank wearing so sumptuous a textile. (Sumptuary laws, donchaknow.)

Its provenance can’t be definitively traced through historical records, but the pivotal connection between queen and parish altar cloth is Blanche Perry, one of Elizabeth’s longest-serving and most dedicated ladies-in-waiting. By the end of her 57 of years of service, starting when the queen was a young princess, Perry held the title of Chief Gentlewoman of Queen Elizabeth’s most honourable Privy Chamber and Keeper of Her Majesty’s jewels. The Queen was known to have given her hand-me-downs, and Perry donated the textile to her parish church, St Faith’s in Bacton, where her ancestors and her own heart are buried. Historic Royal Palaces curators confirmed that the silver chamblet silk richly embroidered with animals, people and botanicals in gold and silver thread, was once a dress.  There is evidence of pattern cutting that would not be present had the piece not been a garment later recut and sewn to make a cross-shaped altar cloth.

The conserved Bacton Altar Cloth has gone on display at Hampton Court Palace alongside the iconic Rainbow Portrait of Queen Elizabeth wearing a gown that features the elaborate embroidery and precious materials also seen in the Bacton Altar Cloth. The exhibition runs through February 23, 2020. The Historic Royal Palaces videos present fascinating background on the cloth, its conservation and installation.


This is a overview of the find, starting with an absolutely delightful visit at St. Faith’s with historian Ruth E. Richardson, former church warden Charles Hunter and Historic Royal Palaces Curator and Tudor fashion expert Eleri Lynn. The parishioners always knew their altar cloth was reputedly a piece of one of Queen Elizabeth’s gowns, but until they raised the 3 pounds some-odd necessary to frame it and hang it on the church wall in 1909, it was apparently stashed under the vicar’s bed for safekeeping. God I love history so much.


This all-too-short video gives us a glimpse at the conservation of the altar cloth. You see close-ups of the embroidery in brilliant like-new color (a view you don’t get in any of the photographs), the removal of the backing cloth and the patches underneath that while simple are meaningful historical textiles in and of themselves. I wish it were feature length, seriously.


This is a behind-the-scenes video showing the installation of the altar cloth and Rainbow Portrait. Even though there is no narration, it is riveting because you see the nuts and bolts of curatorial work, the mounting of the pieces, the detailed touch-ups on the frames, how they have to navigate through the confines of medieval spaces like those glorious but really quite short Gothic arched stone doorways. I also loved seeing the magnificent artworks casually leaning against the walls of back corridors. It conveys in a few seconds how incredibly deep a bench of cultural heritage is in Hampton Court Palace and, I’m sure, in every other site maintained by Historic Royal Palaces. Oh, and the wallpaper! A big to the dark emerald green damask wallpaper in the room where the portrait and altar cloth are now on display. 

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Rare medieval arrowhead found in Norway

October 15th, 2019

A rare iron arrowhead estimated to be about 1,000 years old has been discovered in the mountains of the Hardanger Plateau in central southern Norway. Local resident Ernst Hagen found it lying casually on the ground when he was out for a walk outside his mountain cabin near the spectacular Vøringsfossen waterfall. (He’s in rarified company; composer Edvard Grieg had a cabin there too.)

Realizing the hunting tool had to predate the use of firearms, Hagen took the 12 cm (4.7 inches) iron arrowhead to the county council where archaeologist Tore Slinning confirmed it was a historic piece and no comparable finds had been reported in Hordaland county. Experts have estimated it to date to the early Middle Ages based on its design.

The plateau, the largest eroded plain plateau in Europe, has a cold alpine climate and is home to the Hardangerjøkulen glacier, one of Norway’s largest. There is archaeological evidence of villages in the area going back to the Neolithic era. These are believed to have been nomadic settlements occupied temporarily by hunters following the migrating herds of reindeer. Even today the plateau is home to some of the largest herds of reindeer in the world who cross from their winter feeding grounds east of the plateau to their summer breeding grounds on the west side.

Artifact finds are extremely rare in the area, with small objects destroyed by the glacier movement or covered in ice and snow. Norway’s glaciers have shrunk by 12% over the past 50 years, however, and the glacier retreat is rapidly increasing due to climate change. As with other endangered cold environments, archaeological finds that would otherwise be preserved indefinitely in the ice are being exposed by thaw.

The arrowhead is rusted and could have been so since shortly after the medieval reindeer hunter missed his quarry a thousand years ago. It may also have oxidized very recently when the artifact was exposed to the air after the ice melted. The same goes for the wooden shaft and fletching which have not survived. If the arrow was trapped in soil, they may have decomposed over many centuries. If the whole thing was encased ensconced in ice, on the other hand, we may have lost them very recently.

The arrowhead is now being conserved at the University Museum in Bergen. It will be stabilized so that it does not continue to corrode and experts will attempt to narrow down its date of manufacture.

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Exceptional Roman necropolis unearthed in Narbonne

October 14th, 2019

An ancient Roman-era necropolis has been unearthed at the gates of Narbonne in Occitaine, southwestern France. Archaeologists from the National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) excavated the site prior to development and discovered a burial ground covering half an acre that was in active use during the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D. So far they have unearthed 300 tombs of an estimated 1,000.

Colonia Narbo Martius was the first Roman colony in Gaul, founded in 118 B.C. along the Via Domitia, the first Roman road in Gaul which linked Italy to the Iberian peninsula. They made a deal with the Greek colony of Massalia (modern-day Marseille) to acquire the land for the road and the new city founded at the important crossroads would prosper through trade, eventually eclipsing Massalia, which was conquered by Caesar in 49 B.C., and becoming the capital of the province of Gallia Transalpina. Indeed, the province would be renamed Gallia Narbonensis after its prosperous capital city.

The necropolis was located at the crossroads of two Roman roads just over a third of a mile east of the ancient city’s perimeter. It was designed in parcels, with masonry enclosures structured in specific groups. The groups, some of which border each other openly, others of which are divided by service roads, are characterized by small funerary monuments decorated with painted plaster and inscribed plaques. The inscriptions provide names and status — free or enslaved — of the deceased and attest to the largely Italian origin of the city’s residents. This was the cemetery of Narbo’s urban population, not the tombs of the elite, but the layout, construction and fine grave goods are evidence of widespread prosperity.

Most of the remains are cinerary, burned bones and ashes on pyres or enclosed in ceramic vessels placed on tiled or paved platforms.  They are often accompanied by delicate glassware — small bottles, unguentaria — and ceramic jugs and lamps. Charred organic remains from burned offerings have been identified, including of figs and dates. Personal items like jewelry and protective phallus amulets were discovered among the ashes.

The condition of the graves is exceptional. A tributary of the Aude river used to run nearby and layers of silt from regular flooding protected the remains. Archaeologists dug through 10 feet of alluvial silt, each successive flood sealing different burial phases and giving the team the chance to establish a chronology of the stages of use of the burial ground, the evolution of funerary rites and religious beliefs.

The state of preservation allows us, for once, to understand some of the ritual gestures; at the time of the funeral, at the pyre or in the grave, as well as in the context of the memorial practices, through offerings in honor of the deceased or meals consumed in the enclosures.

Rarely attested in Gaul, libation conduits were used in one out of three graves at Narbonne. Extending above the ground, these conduits are ceramic, sometimes amphorae, driven into the tomb to get closer to the deceased. They allowed the introduction of offerings. Some still contain cups used for libations and shells. The studies of them focus on identifying the libation practices through organic chemistry analyses.

The diversity of the funerary structures, their state of preservation, and the superimposition of floors and tombs make this a unique site in Gaul, which can be compared with sites in Italy, such as Pompeii and Rome. It offers a very rare opportunity to understand funerary practices in time and space. The Narbonne necropolis is already considered as a main source in the study of funerary practices in Roman Gaul, as well as for our knowledge of the working class in Antiquity.

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Church donates medieval hand-bell donated to National Museum of Ireland

October 13th, 2019

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin has donated an early medieval hand-bell believed to date to the 8th or 9th century to the National Museum of Ireland. The bell is something of a mysterious object and little is known about its ancient and recent past.

The Knockatemple Hand-Bell was discovered in 1879 at the site of a ruined church in Knockatemple near Glendalough Co. Wicklow. Dr. W. Frazer announced to the Royal Irish Academy on May 26, 1879, the results of the excavation on behalf of Mr. Henry Keogh of Roundwood House who explored the ruins of the church that year.

“This church is situation in the parish of Newcastle, Co. Wicklow, near Roundwood, and in the vicinity of the Vartry Water Reservoir. There appear to be no reliable records of its foundation or destruction, which is so complete that its walls were level to the ground, and what remained of it required to be cleared out of clay and rubbish for two or three feet before the flooring was reached. It must have been a large building, 50 feet long and 26 feet wide, with two side aisles 9 feet wide in the clear, and 26 feet in length, which from the plan may have been of later erection that the church itself. It was disposed east and west, and the floor, which was on the south side, was 4 feet in width. The aisles as well as the central portion of the church were paved with large flat stones, and in one of the aisles to the northward was what Mr. Keogh conjectures to be the remains of a stone altar situated in the east of the building; but he could find no trace of an altar in the body of the church itself. […]

The large square-shaped bronze bell…, measures 12 inches high, and 8 inches across. It was found at the east end of the church, about two feet under the surface, near the position the altar would occupy. It had a handle, which was broken off by the workmen in excavating it…. They also damaged one part of the top of the bell with a pickaxe. Mr. Keogh has polished a corner of it, and it consists of fine bronze made in two portions, the halves being rivetted together.

There was no indication as to the age of the bell noted in the 19th century records. The only artifacts recovered in the 1879 excavation with absolute dates were two coins of Henry III of England (r. 1216-1272) and Alexander II of Scotland (r. 1214-1249) found in burials in the clay and debris layer, so either disturbed church burials or post-destruction interrals.

The bell’s history after its excavation is obscure too. The Archdiocese has owned it since the 1920s. They believe it was bought at auction by a priest of St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, the episcopal seat of the Archbishop of Dublin, in 1915. In 1927, the discovery of the bell was recorded in The Deaneries of Arklow and Wicklow a paper by V Rev. Myles V. Ronan published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland. Ronan’s description differed slightly from Frazer’s in that he recognized the bell was made of iron with “traces of bronze plating.”

The Archdiocese wasn’t actively aware of the delicate historic treasure in its care until Cormac Bourke a curator of Medieval antiquities at the Ulster Museum, Belfast, tracked down the bell through the records and reached out to the Diocesan Archives a few years ago. Realizing the artifact needed special conservatorial experience, Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, wrote to the National Museum of Ireland telling them about the bell and offering to donate it to the National Collection of historic hand-bells.

Archbishop Martin officially presented the Knockatemple Hand-Bell to Maeve Sikora, Keeper of Irish Antiquities at the NMI, on September 26th.

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