Review – The Quest for the Irish Celt: the Harvard Archaeological Mission to Ireland

5 mins read
Mairéad Carew
Irish Academic Press, £22.25
ISBN 978-1788550093
Review Maureen Doyle

This book tells the story of the Harvard Archaeological Mission, which worked in Ireland between 1932 and 1936 to explore the Celtic origins of the Irish race. Using now-controversial eugenics ideas, it looked to physically identify a Celtic race in the modern Irish. Its social anthropologists saw 1930s Ireland as a society in transition from a traditional, rural, Celtic way of life to modernity. And its archaeologists sought, through excavation, to find evidence of the Celtic presence in Irish prehistory, linked to Continental European cultures.

The story focuses on the archaeology and physical anthropology elements, but does much more than simply describe the project. It is set within the cultural and political background and events of the period, in the relatively young Irish Free State, when ideas of an ancient Irish identity and cultural heritage were seen as an important part of underpinning and justifying the new nation. Celtic identity had been a key component of Irish cultural heritage since the 19th century, drawing largely on nationalistic ideas, which were based more on language and literature than on archaeological evidence. (Indeed, the very limited amount of Hallstatt and La Tène material in Ireland continues to challenge mythical ideas of a Celtic ‘invasion’ of Ireland.) It was by scientifically pursuing evidence for these ideas of a Celtic Ireland that the Harvard Mission could prove its theories and reinforce existing understandings of Irish identity, and contribute to the State’s programme of cultural development – for them it was a ‘win-win’ situation.

The book teases out the archaeological nuances and complexities of the period. The Harvard Mission, biased in their methodologies, did still play a major role at the time in bringing new scientific methods and techniques to Irish archaeology, informing much subsequent work. But Irish archaeology in the 1930s was also influenced by European developments, in part through the background of the Austrian archaeologist Adolf Mahr, director of the National Museum of Ireland and the notorious leader of the Dublin branch of the Nazi Party. Mahr’s Continental experience of Celtic archaeology both influenced his expectations for Irish archaeology and guided his advice to the Harvard personnel, which included directing them towards particular sites where Celtic evidence might potentially be excavated.

Some of the chief excavations discussed include those at the crannóg sites, which Mahr and others regarded as Celtic in nature; in the event, much of the evidence revealed at the sites dated from the Early Christian period. While not Celtic in the sense of Continental material culture, this chimed with contemporaneous ideas of Irish identity, where artefacts such as the Book of Kells were regarded as ‘Celtic’ art. The excavation of the ‘royal’ crannóg at Lagore is explored as a case study of how politics and theories influenced the interpretation of material evidence – notably by using historical texts to identify and date the site. The extent to which such biases and preconceptions of identity constrained both the focus and outcome of the mission, as well as its longer-term influence on Irish archaeology, is a recurring theme throughout the book.

While the Harvard Mission was based in the Irish Free State, it also undertook excavations in Northern Ireland; it was here that evidence for the Mesolithic ‘Larnian’ phase was recognised. Although clearly not Celtic, this was a key discovery for Irish prehistory, and the disputes between archaeologists on both sides of the border highlight the contemporary importance placed on the interpretation of identity. Other interesting areas covered include the use of unemployment schemes for archaeological excavation, and the media dissemination of excavation results and ‘Celtic’ ideas.

This book interweaves social, economic, and intellectual strands to set the search for the ‘Irish Celt’ in its broader context, including the political background and theoretical ideas of the period, to tell a fascinating, if complex, story of Irish archaeology in the 1930s.

This review appeared in CA 343.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.