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About the collection

The collections, archives and displays of the Irish Antiquities Division are housed mainly in the National Museum of Ireland - Archaeology. This Division has a staff of eight, including a Keeper, five Assistant Keepers, Senior Technical Assistant and Clerical Officer.

  • The Irish Archaeological Collection

The archaeological collection is the primary repository of ancient Irish artefacts and an indispensable source for researchers into the development of Irish civilization from prehistoric times until the end of the Middle Ages and beyond. The period covered by the exhibitions extends from the Mesolithic through to the end of the Medieval Period, and includes internationally known treasures such as the Ardagh Chalice, Tara Brooch and Derrynaflan Hoard.

Based on core collections assembled in the late 18th and 19th centuries by the Royal Dublin Society and the Royal Irish Academy, the archaeological collections have expanded consideraby over the last 100 years and now number in excess of two million objects. The collection is significant in extent, diversity and quality and several areas are of acknowledged international standing. These are the prehistoric gold collections; ecclesiastical metalwork and personal ornaments of the early medieval period; and the Viking Dublin assemblage.

Legislation provides an operational framework for the work of the Irish Antiquities Division and is also a statement of public policy in relation to it. Archaeological objects found in Ireland are claimable as State property under the terms of the National Monuments Acts, 1930 to 2014. The core collection continues to grow rapidly, as a result of both chance discovery and large-scale archaeological excavation.

Finders are obliged to report their discoveries of archaeological objects to the National Museum of Ireland (or to a Designated County Museum).*  Discretionary finder’s rewards may be paid in respect of discoveries. Searching for archaeological objects with metal detectors, or excavating them, is regulated by licence. Archaeological excavation and fieldwork is undertaken regularly by the Museum’s archaeologists to obtain contextual information about new discoveries reported by members of the public.

  • International Collections

The Irish Antiquities Division manages substantial collections of Ethnographical, Classical and Egyptian objects as well as a small collection of European antiquities.

  • European Archaeological Collections

The Irish Antiquities Division has a relatively small collection of British andEuropean antiquities, which were acquired mainly for comparative purposes.

  • Classical and Egyptian Collections

The Irish Antiquities division’s holdings includes small collections of Classical and Egyptian material from the ancient Mediterranean. There is a small, though diverse, and representative collection of around 1,000 Roman antiquities, covering all periods and from all parts of the empire. The Greek collection numbers around 600 objects, mainly vases, and there are around 400 Cypriot antiquities, mainly ceramic and glass objects from the excavation of cemeteries. The Egyptian collection of around 3,000 objects also consists mainly of excavated material.

  • Ethnographical Collections

The Ethnographical collection at the National Museum of Ireland (NMI) is comprised of approx. 15,000 objects, which were mainly acquired during the period between 1760 and 1914 and represent a range of cultures. The collections reflect Irish exploration of the world from the 18th Century to the present day, as well as the role of the Irish within the British Empire. There is material from Polynesia, Melanesia, Micronesia, North and South America, West and Southern Africa and South and East Asia. 

The research and the repatriation of such objects forms part of the ongoing work of the Museum, and this includes engagement with indigenous communities. Like so many museums that were opened in the 19th century, NMI has legacy collections that do not reflect contemporary collecting practice or ethics.  The key enabler of this work is research to ensure we are in a position of having a full understanding of the provenance of each piece within the collections.

The return of such cultural property is something which the Museum has been responsive to over the years and requests have been dealt with on a case-by-case basis.  In 1990, for example, the NMI permanently repatriated two toi moko (tattooed Maori heads) to Te Papa (Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa).

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