It often sparks debate on our social media platforms when I share images of Irish artefacts that are housed in foreign museums. Typically people want to know how these objects ended up abroad and why they are not in an Irish museum. This beautiful Late Bronze Age (c. 1200-700 BC) gold disc is one of these ‘emigrant artefacts’. Discovered in the late 18th century in Co. Wexford, it now forms part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art‘s collections in New York. How it got there is an interesting and complex tale.
The piece was one of four gold discs which were uncovered in 1795 by a man ploughing land near the town of Enniscorthy (see Culleton 1984). Aware of their value, he sold the artefacts onto a local silversmith, who unfortunately melted down two of the discs for gold bullion. The remaining pair were then sold to the then president of the Royal Irish Academy, The Earl of Charlemount.
It is not exactly understood how, but sometime afterwards, the discs ended up in the private collection of the Grogan family of Johnstown Castle in South Co. Wexford. Here they remained until the contents of the castle were sold in 1944. One of the discs[i] was then purchased by a Dublin dealer, Harold Naylor, who in turn sold it to a Mr. Patrick O’Connor. Shortly afterwards, in 1946, the artefact was acquired by a Hungarian-born art dealer, Joseph Brummer. It did not stay with Brummer for long, however, as the next year his entire collection, including the Ennniscorthy disc, was purchased by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and this is where it still resides.
The original use of these distinctive gold discs has been much discussed, but recently Mary Cahill, of the National Museum of Ireland, has convincingly argued that they actually represent parts of ear-spools (Cahill 2001). Still a popular piece of jewellery, ear-spools normally consist of a large ring that is worn in the ear-lobe (see image below). They are well documented in antiquity, having being worn by many cultures, including the ancient Greeks and Egyptians. Although the Enniscorthy disc may seem like an unlikely candidate for an ear-spool, it must be remembered that the artefact is actually incomplete. Originally it consisted of a pair of discs that were connected by a gold tube, giving an overall impression of a reel.When worn, the gold tube passed through the ear-lobe, which was distended, while the decorated discs sat on either side.
Fashioned out gold, the earrings must have been a very a conspicuous display of wealth and power. Indeed, at 12.2 cm across, the Enniscorthy disc represents the largest ear-spool found to date in Ireland and it would undoubtedly have been a spectacular piece of jewellery. If discovered today it would automatically belong to the Irish State. However, as it formed part of a private collection prior to the enactment of the relevant National Monuments Acts (1930-2004) the Metropolitan Museum is now its legal owner. Hopefully one day it will be returned to Ireland and put on display in the National Museum.
Cahill M. 2001. ‘Unspooling the Reel’, in Archaeology Ireland Vol. 15. No. 3 (Autumn), Wordwell, Bray, pp. 8-15
Culleton, E. 1984. Early Man in County Wexford, 5000 BC – 300 BC, Mount Salus Press, pp. 24-25
Disk from a Reel: Metropolitan Museum of Art (accessed 27/09/2013)
Archaeology in Wexford
[i] The other surviving disc ended up at Trinity College Dublin and they subsequently gave it the National Museum of Ireland