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 When, for archaeologists, superstition is a good thing ...

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nordmann
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PostSubject: When, for archaeologists, superstition is a good thing ...   Thu 07 Feb 2013, 13:58

The recent discovery of 81 gold guineas during renovation work in a pub in Carrick-on-Suir, County Tipperary in Ireland a few weeks ago, is being hailed quite justifiably as one of the greatest archaeological finds in South Tipperary in living memory (they have a long way to go to catch up with their North Riding neighbours who can boast the Derrynaflan Chalice as "theirs"). The coins were all from the first half of the 17th century and though as yet no clue has been found as to why they had been secreted so carefully within what might have been a fireplace in the structure preceding its use as Clegg's public house it is probable that the turmoil in Ireland during Cromwell's invasion and confiscations might well have played a role.



What struck me most about the case however was a seemingly throwaway comment by the builder, Seamus Comerford, whose workmen found the hoard and who had the presence of mind not to disturb it in situ once they realised what they were looking at, but instead to notify the local police at once. Thanks to them the find could be examined immediately by archaeologists from the National Museum confident that the coins' context had been preserved. Under Irish law the hoard counts as treasure and therefore the property of the state, but the amount given out by the state as a possible reward is totally discretionary. In these straitened times the amount could well be nothing at all. The pub's owner David Kiersey, Shane Murray the builder who found them and his boss Seamus Comerford, upon being asked how they felt about this, responded with a rather unexpected take on civic responsibility - Comerford said he had no hesitation in handing the coins over to the Gardai as, he reckoned, "you’d never have luck for keeping one of them".

A laudible sentiment, and we are all in his debt for his doing the right thing. But had he not feared "bad luck" would his actions have been different?

People often say the strangest things when pressed for a response from a news reporter, so I am not in any way implying that any of the men involved acted except with the most praiseworthy civic motives. However fear of bad luck associated with special circumstances or fetish-imbued objects seems to have played some role in their thought processes. Superstition, in other words, but a superstition which in this case protected an important part of Ireland's national heritage.

How much of our heritage in fact has survived for similar reasons over the millennia? I would hazard a guess that it has been quite a lot ...
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Caro
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PostSubject: Re: When, for archaeologists, superstition is a good thing ...   Thu 07 Feb 2013, 20:17

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But had he not feared "bad luck" would his actions have been different?

I suspect so, but not necessarily because of superstition exactly. He's certainly worded it that way, but I think lots of people avoid certain actions because they fear the consequences. Despite the fact that some people seem to get away with huge thefts and shoplifting, I wouldn't even pick up a strawberry and put it my mouth, not because I fear bad luck so much as a rather officious shop detective. Or the fear of humiliation in my community. (I think, though, I might have that kind of attitude towards wearing my seat belt. I don't wear it, as many do, because otherwise I might get caught and have to pay a fine. I wear it to stop me being hurt, and I do have a sort of superstitious feeling that it would be bad luck, or perhaps more ironic luck, if the one time I don't bother, I had an accident. So I don't risk that often.)

I notice this sort of superstition a lot when people watch sport. They put themselves at the centre and talk as if their allegiance affects the game. "If I just hadn't gone out the room for a moment, they wouldn't have scored."

I don't want to be too stereotypical but that reaction seems to me not one I'd expect in a New Zealander; it seems to 'fit' an Irish person, and I suppose that is because I think of them as living in a more religious country than mine. Novels set in older times put that sort of feeling into characters, but you don't think of it as a modern attitude, but then how many of us come across a treasure trove like that?
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Arwe Rheged
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PostSubject: Re: When, for archaeologists, superstition is a good thing ...   Fri 08 Feb 2013, 13:49

In addition, he might be conscious that what he did might be regarded in the construction industry as being a bit namby-pamby (as the term is understood by real men who have fights and can drink twenty pints without needing the toilet). No-one wants to be subject to ridicule, so if he was worried that:-

1. Ringing the Gardai might be seen as a bit swotty and/or

2. Failing to sling the coins on a skip so work could continue makes him look workshy and/or

3. Not flogging the coins on the black market would be seen as a lost opportunity to make a few euros

he may well look to justify his actions by relying on superstition and non-specific notions of karma. There is a farily long tradition of ill fortune befalling those who meddle with antiquities (it popped up recently in the first Pirates of the Caribbean film) and I recalll men of my acquaintance seeking to justify their decision to get married because of the tax breaks. Nonsense - just say that you love her, for heaven's sake.

Of course, he may well genuinely believe that bad luck will befall him.

Regards,

AR
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Islanddawn
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PostSubject: Re: When, for archaeologists, superstition is a good thing ...   Fri 08 Feb 2013, 14:57

@Caro wrote:
I don't want to be too stereotypical but that reaction seems to me not one I'd expect in a New Zealander; it seems to 'fit' an Irish person, and I suppose that is because I think of them as living in a more religious country than mine. Novels set in older times put that sort of feeling into characters, but you don't think of it as a modern attitude, but then how many of us come across a treasure trove like that?

I don't think christianity has a lot to do with it, superstition is way older and reaches back into the mists of time. In my experience most people (whatever nationality) are superstitious to some degree about a lot of different things. Most sportsmen and women will have a lucky pair of socks or something similar for games, horse racing is full of superstitions including the spectators who'll have lucky seats etc. Even the least superstitious person usually won't walk under a ladder, will shudder if a mirror breaks, avoid curses, won't open an umbrella indoors or a groom won't see a bride before the wedding and the list goes on.

We call it superstition but I think at its most basic, it is our way of feeling we could exert some control over the uncontrollable. Or, at least, feeling as though we can anyway. Er, touch wood.
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nordmann
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PostSubject: Re: When, for archaeologists, superstition is a good thing ...   Tue 12 Feb 2013, 16:45

The assumption that anyone in Ireland is necessarily religious these days is a rather foolish one - Caro is right to label her own comment as "stereotypical", and in current times a very jaded stereotype at that. Seamus Comerford's superstitious assertion strikes me as being rooted in something much more primeval and ancient than any mere religious sentiment.

Neither did his assertion come across as motivated by a fear of what others might think as Arwe Rheged postulated. In fact the opposite impression was the one I got. It is actually very rare these days to hear such superstition openly averred and a person who is so conscious of what others might potentially think of him would be more, rather than less, inclined to keep such views to himself.

But what is true is that it wasn't him in any case who made the initial decision to respect the find for its historical value anyway - it was his men who both found them and reported them. Shane Murray was unequivocal regarding his own thinking - the coins were of archaeological importance, sufficient in quantity to constitute treasure under law, and therefore there was no option but to report them. Comerford's comment was therefore just that - he was not on the spot but simply asked for his view about a decision that had already been taken by others. That is why it stands out in my opinion.

It is all such a far cry from another incident I recall in Ireland in the 1980s, when a stranger on the bus with whom I fell into conversation explained to me as we passed a bank's new headquarters in the city that he had been a JCB operator during its construction. A few metres down they started uncovering human bones, hundreds of them, and the foreman immediately ordered them to complete the digging of the foundations overnight and get them concreted over as quickly as possible "before anyone sees them". A police investigation would have delayed the project by several days - a possible archaeological one by several months. He actually laughed at the memory and expected me to join him in congratulating his foreman for quick thinking.

To this day the actual site of Dublin's burial area during its Viking era has never been found. That site, a mere hundred yards from The Thingmote and just outside the city's palisade as befits Viking custom, fits the bill perfectly.


Last edited by nordmann on Tue 12 Feb 2013, 23:04; edited 1 time in total
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Caro
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PostSubject: Re: When, for archaeologists, superstition is a good thing ...   Tue 12 Feb 2013, 22:27

Superstition to me is based in 'religious' (not usually Christian) beliefs, though. Beliefs about beginnings and ends and gods and what brings sickness, etc.) I don't think European NZers would have any concerns about bad luck involving settler historical items, though recently a project for a mall in the middle of Dunedin had to incorporate an old street found underneath, and the contractors put everything on hold very quickly. Attitudes have changed about this in the last decades.

But they would feel very differently about Maori artefacts. And I think there is an element of superstitious belief in our attitudes here. "Tapu" is much wider that 'bad luck', but nobody here, Maori or Pakeha, would want to bring tapu upon themselves. I think Europeans would quite easily feel it would be bad luck to tamper with a finding of Maori significance. I'm not very religious but I would think twice (and a lot more times than that) before I would take or ignore a Maori treasure (and everything is a Maori treasure), and not just for legal or ethical reasons either. It would feel very much like tempting an extremely bad fate. And I think this would be a pretty typical reaction.

But European stuff wouldn't bring that sort of feeling.
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nordmann
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PostSubject: Re: When, for archaeologists, superstition is a good thing ...   Tue 12 Feb 2013, 23:16

I'm not sure superstition is in fact based in religious beliefs, even according to your broad definition of that term. In fact I would suggest the opposite is true. Religion, no matter how codified it might get (and it does get very, almost by definition of the word), is in the end of the day an assertion that superstitious belief has worth.

Your differentiation between European and Maori artefacts in a New Zealand context merely indicates your own method of according respect for antiquity. Like with any other culture this is not, as you would imagine, based solely on age but also on what you have been instructed culturally to respect anyway. Americans are presently (and some would say belatedly) undergoing the same process with regard to their predecessors' values.

I still think your attribution of Seamus Comerford's statement to "religion" is way too glib.
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Caro
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PostSubject: Re: When, for archaeologists, superstition is a good thing ...   Wed 13 Feb 2013, 09:14

Well, I suppose that might be right.

I would think that some superstition is based from religious beliefs and some religious beliefs come from superstition. I don't think they are exclusively one or the other.

Quote :
Your differentiation between European and Maori artefacts in a New Zealand context merely indicates your own method of according respect for antiquity
There isn't much antiquity in NZ European artefacts. My differentiation probably indicates a fear of offending Maori. But also Maori are very spiritual (some anyway) and it's hard not to be affected by their strong feelings for their land and their taonga (treasures) and their belief that everything is connected and important.
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nordmann
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PostSubject: Re: When, for archaeologists, superstition is a good thing ...   Wed 13 Feb 2013, 10:44

Quote :
Well, I suppose that might be right.

Very gracious of you ...

Irish superstition has certainly helped preserve countless ancient burial sites, forts and - as we found out some years ago - even some Roman remains on the eastern seaboard. The association of obviously man-made hillocks, humps and bumps in the landscape with supernatural properties cannot be proven to have any direct link through time with their original status or function, and nor can it be linked directly to whatever religious beliefs pertained at any time, but it certainly has helped safeguard sites against destruction. John de Courcey Ireland once made out a list of such sites, extant and destroyed, and could demonstrate conclusively that the vast majority of those destructions up to the middle of the 20th century had been at the instigation of what might be termed "alien" agents - English landlords being the biggest category by far.
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Caro
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PostSubject: Re: When, for archaeologists, superstition is a good thing ...   Wed 13 Feb 2013, 20:48


Quote :
Very gracious of you ...

"Very gracious of you ..." Indeed!

We could do with a bit more suspicion here. I was quite shocked a few years ago when my son was working on a North Island farm which had a number of Maori pa on it. The farmer had no qualms apparently about pushing them over to make better farmland for himself. But when I mentioned this desecration to a (admittedly South Island with her own concerns) Maori and wondered what I should do, she said there were lots of them really and archaeologists would know about them and not to worry. But it still feels very wrong to me that someone would do that. I expect this farmer had the same ideas as your foreman (except this was only about 7 or 8 years ago, if that).
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backtothedarkplace
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PostSubject: Re: When, for archaeologists, superstition is a good thing ...   Mon 18 Mar 2013, 20:59

Dunno about Ireland but in Yorkshire at one point every time a house was built the builders sometimes left something a coin, sometimes shoes, it was considered bad luck to move them or remove them from the property.

This sounds more like someones piggy bank though.
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Arwe Rheged
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PostSubject: Re: When, for archaeologists, superstition is a good thing ...   Tue 19 Mar 2013, 09:33

Hi Nordmann

Quote :
Neither did his assertion come across as motivated by a fear of what others might think as Arwe Rheged postulated. In fact the opposite impression was the one I got. It is actually very rare these days to hear such superstition openly averred and a person who is so conscious of what others might potentially think of him would be more, rather than less, inclined to keep such views to himself.

I'm not sure I agree with that. Expressing views which might make one look workshy and expressing views that might indicate a belief in some sort of cosmic karma are very different things. Both might well colour how someone else thinks about you, so assuming we are happy to use Mr C as our example (although, of course, we should perhaps talk more generally so as not to slander a fellow none of us have ever met), we perhaps have to ask how each comment might go down with one's peers.

It might be different in Ireland, but in all the bits of northern England where I've ever lived (and there's a few of them), putting in a hard day's graft is considered one of the most important measures of one's self-worth and contribution to wider society. No-one likes a glassback (as they are called in these parts - and perhaps more widely too). Many folk are therefore keen to avoid being associated with anything which could be perceived as dodging work.

By contrast, although fewer and fewer of us engage in formal religious observance, most people seem to accept nebulous and ill-defined notions of fate and karma. "It's fate that we met". "I just know he's going to be alright" etc etc. On top of that, we all have a natural suspicion and/or awe of the unfamiliar and tend to imbue it with more than a touch of mystique - haunted old houses, ley lines connecting stone circles, fairy bridges, house leeks on the roof (to keep away the witches, natch), horsehoes (for good luck) and even shoes/coins/dead cats under foundation stones. No-one thinks you are in any way odd or unusual to express such views - provided, of course, one expresses them in general and non-specific terms. Go much further and you run the risk of being tarred as a drippy hippy.

So, although I cannot presume to judge what was going through Mr C's mind, it seems to me that the general principle that downing tools for a reason connected with bad luck is far more socially acceptable than downing tools because of an interest in history is a sound one.

Regards,

AR
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nordmann
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PostSubject: Re: When, for archaeologists, superstition is a good thing ...   Tue 19 Mar 2013, 09:56

As you said, AR, we're second guessing a man's motives. I'm taking him at his literal word whereas you're reading more into what he said and ascribing ulterior motive for his statement on that basis. You could well be right of course.

The important thing though is that whether it was genuinely meant or a ploy used to avoid being poorly thought of by his peers, it was nevertheless a superstitious belief that was cited by him, and done so obviously in the expectation on his part that it would be understood and accepted as a valid reason in its own right for the action he and his colleagues took.

So in that sense one can still say that an appeal to superstitious belief played its role in the preservation of the context and content of the find.
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ferval
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PostSubject: Re: When, for archaeologists, superstition is a good thing ...   Tue 19 Mar 2013, 10:05

I'm not sure downing tools is the question though AR, it's more why didn't the workmen who originally found them just quietly pocket them and sell them later? It's not as if they or he weren't aware of ebay.

Nordmann, in the Irish system, who gets the reward money when something like this turns up? Here it would all go to the finder, the land or property owner doesn't get any.

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nordmann
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PostSubject: Re: When, for archaeologists, superstition is a good thing ...   Tue 19 Mar 2013, 10:26

No one gets a reward by right in the case of treasure - which is what makes this instance all the more commendable. However in practice the state will make an arbitrary payment to both the finder and the property owner. In the case of the Derrynaflan chalice this ambiguity led to a very bitter court case fought between the finder and the farmer on whose land it was discovered regarding the proper share each felt entitled to. In the end, since neither of them would have had any claim at all except for the fact that the state had already paid out to both, the court was forced to make a ruling based only on that specific instance but advised that the law be amended to include the stipulation that all interested parties in any potential reward agree their percentages before any payment is made and that the payment of reward is predicated on that agreement having beeen reached.

Though it hasn't happened yet, this can in fact now lead to one disgruntled party refusing to play ball and therefore effectively stopping payment to everyone, just for spite.
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Arwe Rheged
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PostSubject: Re: When, for archaeologists, superstition is a good thing ...   Tue 19 Mar 2013, 15:13

@ferval wrote:
I'm not sure downing tools is the question though AR, it's more why didn't the workmen who originally found them just quietly pocket them and sell them later? It's not as if they or he weren't aware of ebay.

Oooh! I think there's a country mile between pretending one hasn't seen the offending artefacts ("quick, stick 'em int skip afore matey-boy frum Council clozizz the spot doon" or "quick - git that screed fired owa' them afore matey-boy frum the Council clozizz the spot doon") and actively stealing them. The first is just good sense. The second is dishonest, and most folk aren't dishonest ("ah'm a grafter. Ah'm nut one o' these thievin' potters, like". Ah've nivver nicked owt in me life.")

Regards,

AR
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PostSubject: Re: When, for archaeologists, superstition is a good thing ...   Tue 19 Mar 2013, 15:39

AR, you do have a high regard for human nature! This isn't a case of 'There's a Neolithic settlement under the development' (something that was quite frequent during the Celtic Tiger days) and the prospect of weeks of delay and the cost of the archaeological investigation + the possibility of having to resite, it's some obviously gold coins in a fireplace during a pub renovation. Declaring them would only be a minor nuisance but with the current price of gold........ I really think that a superstitious fear of the consequences of meddling with them might well be a motive for 'fessing up. Anyway, for the proprietors of the establishment no publicity is bad publicity and a nice feature for their pub. The developers also come out of this with an enhanced reputation for integrity and there's the chanceof some reward money too.
Call me an old cynic - many have.

ps - keep up the good work 'over-by'.
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