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Home Uncategorized The Quest for the Celt

The Quest for the Celt

Michael Gibbons

The Quest for the Irish Celt: the Harvard Archaeological Mission to Ireland, 1932-1936, by Mairéad Carew, Irish Academic Press, 320 pp, €24.95, ISBN: 978-1788550093

The Harvard Archaeological Mission to Ireland or the Harvard Anthropological Survey (or simply the Harvard Mission) from 1932 to 1936 is the subject of Mairéad Carew’s new book. The mission had three strands; archaeological excavations, physical anthropology and social anthropology, the results of which were published in a variety of forms between 1936 and 1955. The archaeological component had a profound effect on the development of Irish archaeology and is relatively well-known among practitioners here but the equally fascinating sociological and physical-anthropological elements have been largely forgotten. Carew does not deal in any depth with the social anthropology strand of the mission, which was centred on rural Clare and ultimately published as Family and Community in Ireland, directing the reader to a comprehensive article by Byrne, Edmondson and Varley (Arensberg and Kimball and Anthropological Research in Ireland: Introduction to the Third Edition [2001]) but sheds new light on the origins and conduct of the other two strands through extensive archival research and quotations from both the Irish and American officials and scholars involved.

The physical anthropology component included the detailed measurement and recording of a wide range of features from a representative sample of the Irish population, with a particular focus on the precise shape and size of the Irish skull and its relationship to prevailing theories of racial descent and intellectual ability. The “science” of craniometry had a long history in Ireland by the 1930s; similar work had already been conducted on the western islands as recently recalled by the excellent Irish Headhunter exhibition. The question of whether the Irish, conceived of as largely racially “Celtic”, had been characterised by dolicocephalic (long) or brachycephalic (short) skulls or a mix of the two was of interest to the Harvard team and to contemporary racial scientists and politicians. Discussion of this element of the work is of course overshadowed by the uses made of similar racial categories from the 1920s to the mid-1940s on the continent. The presence of Adolf Mahr, who for much of the period covered was doubling as director of the National Museum and head of the Irish Nazi party lends the discussion of racial types and their relationship to the ancient Aryans a horrifying fascination.

On the archaeological front, the Harvard exhibition conducted excavations in the Irish Free State of Bronze Age sites at Knockast (Co Westmeath), Carrownacon and Carrowlisdooaun (Co Mayo), Poulawack (Co Clare), Creevykeel (Co Sligo), as well as Early Christian monuments at Ballinderry I (Co Westmeath), Ballinderry II (Co Offaly), Cahercommaun (Co Clare), Gallen (Co Offaly), Lagore (Co Meath) along with a multi-period lithic site (cave) and Late Bronze Age and Early Christian settlement in Kilgreany (Co Waterford), In Northern Ireland, mesolithic sites were excavated at Cushendun, Glenarm, Curran Point and Island Magee (Co Antrim) as well as Rough Island (Co Down) along with a neolithic lithic site at Ballynagard on Rathlin Island (Co Antrim) along with an example of Mahr’s favoured “riverford” culture at Newferry (Co Derry). Simultaneously, a range of excavations were conducted as part of the unemployment scheme which ran from 1934 to 1937. The background machinations as well as the ideological and institutional goals which helped to drive both the research programme itself and the presentation of the results to Ireland and the wider world are all explored to varying degrees.

Carew deals with the background to the Harvard mission in both the United States and Ireland, placing it in the context of contemporary ideas on race and nationality. The mission served the needs of its American creators in providing a field of study for the burgeoning science of physical anthropology with its focus on scientific measurement as a means of identifying distinct human populations in both prehistory and the contemporary world. Simultaneously, it gave its Irish-American backers an opportunity to define themselves in opposition to pre-existing racial biases and “reclaim” the word Celtic through the exhibition of artefacts drawn from a pre-colonisation golden age of Irish independence such as those displayed prominently in the 1934 “Pageant of the Celt”. In Ireland itself, the same golden age served as a set of pre-and early historic title deeds for the newly established Irish State and as an argument against the “artificial” partition of the island.

The Harvard team arrived in Ireland with an already well-established view of its own past; based largely on medieval Irish texts as interpreted by nineteenth century historians and linguists. These described the colonisation of Ireland in a series of “invasions” and the subsequent conversion of the Irish to Christianity. Linguistic analysis placed the Irish language within the Celtic group of the wider Indo-European language family. It seemed entirely reasonable that archaeological investigations would help to confirm and deepen this narrative. The focus on “native” pre-historic, and Early Christian sites rather than on later medieval sites with their “Norman” associations was both a reflection and reinforcement of pre-existing narratives and biases in Irish archaeology. The position of “Celtic” art within the iconography of Irish nationalism is well-known and the Harvard expedition served to reinforce rather than complicate this portion of the national narrative.

Carew demonstrates that, rather than evidence of insularity or backwardness, the Irish use of scientific archaeology, in particular in dealing with prehistory past, to not only provide an origin-myth for the Irish people but also to justify territorial claims and the concept of a distinctive Irish Race (viewed as the purest example of a Celtic People) was firmly within the mainstream of contemporary European thought in the 1930s. She also emphasises the deliberate recruitment, not only in archaeology but across much of public life, of experts from northern Europe as part of a process of both modernising and, perhaps more pressingly, de-Anglicising Irish affairs. The extent to which this approach was determined by pre-existing intellectual and political commitments is demonstrated by comparing it to contemporary work in Northern Ireland which sought to demonstrate the deep continuity of Ulster’s links with western Scotland and Britain in general. While much of this is familiar territory, Carew’s extensive archival research in the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard and the National Museum of Ireland, particularly her quotations from contemporary correspondence, illuminates the degree to which this ideological project ran parallel to narrower institutional goals. The use of American finances to assist a national cultural goal, as well as the assistance of labour drawn from unemployment schemes, reflected the straitened financial circumstances of both the National Museum and of Ireland as a whole in the 1930s. Adolph Mahr’s position within and sympathy with the Nazi movement was a natural fit with the Harvard Team’s racial preconceptions and his role in selecting sites for high-prestige excavations helped to cement the central role of the museum in Irish archaeology relative to the universities..

One element of the Harvard expedition which has received and deserved high praise is its role in helping to modernise and professionalise excavation practices. The increasing use of precise scientific measurement and recording, as emphasised in contemporary American and continental archaeological practice, played an important part in the disparagement of the older, more antiquarian, tradition in Ireland, although the process involved an unseemly amount of sniping at RAS Macallister, who was unfairly placed in the role of outdated “antiquarian” in opposition to the new “scientific archaeologist” who represented the wave of the future. Carew summarises the introduction and development of improved techniques during the course of the expedition, notably the use of theodolites for improved accuracy, the division of sites into quadrants and the use of photography, as well as the then-revolutionary efforts to make use of pollen and charcoal analysis. There was, however, no clear line dividing the pre- and post-Harvard worlds of Irish archaeology. The difference was one of degree. Technique had been and continued to be improved based on international models and, on a more theoretical basis, most of the racial and historical preconceptions with which the expedition began remained intact at the end of it.

One element which stands out to the reader is how many of the issues dealt with by the scholars and scientists of the 1930s remain issues in modern Irish heritage management. The establishment of the Discovery Programme under the auspices of the Heritage Council could be seen as a modern version of the Harvard Expedition, with an originally similar nationalist agenda, although it has since developed into a world class research body. With the exception of the huge surge in excavations over the past twenty years as a result of the national road schemes, Irish research excavations remain underfunded. Indeed, there were more excavations on the Orkney Islands last year than on the whole of the West coast of Ireland, with its thousands of vulnerable sites. Ireland urgently needs to develop a modern regional heritage infrastructure and to fully absorb the multi-disciplinary group approach to heritage science which has already been widely adopted elsewhere. As in the 1930s, there remains a dearth of both resources and personnel at a county and local museum level. Particularly with the thinning out of an already thin National Archaeological Survey, the failure to develop regional archaeological units and provide county archaeologists stands in marked contrast to the achievements of our nearest neighbours. The development of the arts infrastructure, with its network of regional theatres and arts officers on every council, has proven to be far more successful than equivalent actions in the heritage sector. We remain decades behind similar-sized countries such as Sweden or Denmark. In addition, the development of archaeological science, greatly aided by the Harvard expedition and continued by the Discovery Programme and others, has been regrettably slow to arrive in the world of architectural conservation, where nineteenth century structures and practices continue to flourish. Money has been poured into the presentation of architecturally prestigious sites such as Newgrange, Trim Castle and the Rock of Cashel, leaving the vast majority of other sites with little or no investment. Some of the vision displayed by Irish government in the 1930s, in particular the willingness to draw upon the best of foreign practices and techniques in the service of Irish heritage, would be a welcome addition to the 2020s.

The Harvard expedition expected to both unearth archaeological evidence for the position of Ireland within a wider Celtic material culture and also the physical remains which would help fix the anthropological origins of the Irish race. On these terms, they only partially succeeded; events on the continent would ensure that by the time the results were published in the 1950s the term “race” would be tactfully replaced by “type” and the evidence for the “coming of the Celts” remains sparse up to the present day. Given the shortage of excavated sites for comparison, the difficulty of dating in the pre-radiocarbon era and the dependence on written sources and folklore (which were the only sources widely available) for the context of otherwise mysterious monuments, some of the criticisms made in the text of the interpretations of 1930s scholars seem overly harsh. Indeed, one flaw in an otherwise excellent book is the repetition that there was no Iron Age “Celtic Invasion” whenever the world “Celt” or any of its derivative terms appears in quoted contemporary articles or correspondence. This becomes tedious after a while and it might have been better simply to sum up the current view of “Celtic” as a disputed and perhaps incoherent term in archaeology in a single chapter and then allow the reader to take it as read for the remainder of the book. Overall however, this excellently researched book is a fascinating introduction to both the Harvard expedition itself and to the cultural and political forces shaping Irish archaeology in the 1930s.


Michael Gibbons is a member of the Institute of Archaeologists of Ireland and a former county director of the sites and monuments records office of the Office of Public Works, now working in private practice. His research interests include world heritage management in Ireland, heritage tourism and upland and pilgrimage landscapes of the Western seaboard.



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