British Museum blog

Holy hand-bells: the endless histories of Irish relics

hand-bell
Sue Brunning, curator, British Museum

Several weeks ago I broke a green glass tumbler when emptying the dishwasher. The vessel wasn’t rare or expensive; in fact, it was a free gift that I’d received when buying a meal at a fast food restaurant. But that restaurant happened to be on a stretch of the autobahn in Bavaria, Germany, to where I’d driven from London to attend a friend’s wedding. To me, the glass embodied cherished memories of a very special holiday; putting it into the recycling bin with ordinary rubbish made me pretty sad!

This idea, that the objects we own, use and wear become infused with meaning through our interactions with them, is one of the things I find most fascinating about archaeology. Some of my favourite objects in the British Museum’s collections are those which show clear evidence of human use: patches of wear, repairs, or modifications to their original form. I see these as the fingerprints of real people in the past: their choices, their very hands brought about these changes. This brings those people back to life in my imagination.

A group of objects under my curatorial care illustrate this particularly well: hand-bells from early medieval Ireland. Made around the AD 500s–900s, hand-bells were used to call monks to prayer in Irish (and north and west British) monasteries. Clues indicate that their significance exceeded this simple function. The earliest bells were made from wrought iron sheets that were folded and riveted into shape, then brazed with copper alloy (as recent discoveries in Clonfad, County Westmeath confirm).

Experiments have shown that this process was incredibly labour-intensive, requiring plenty of time, raw materials and technological skill: in other words, the type of effort afforded to very special artefacts. Contemporary carvings show figures with croziers – the symbolic hooked staffs of holy office – also carrying hand-bells, suggesting that the latter too were symbols of high standing in the Irish church.

Display of hand-bells in Room 41. Saint Cuileáin’s bell is on the left.

Display of hand-bells in Room 41. Saint Cuileáin’s bell is on the left.

Bell (1889,0902.22)

Hand-bell of Saint Conall Cael with later brass mount (1889,0902.22)

The special nature of some hand-bells became, quite literally, enshrined. Tradition has linked a number of bells, including several in the British Museum’s collections, with early Irish saints. Some became relics and were embellished with ornate mounts or glittering shrines centuries after the bells themselves were made. Two such bells are now displayed in Room 41, the Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery of Sutton Hoo and Europe AD 300–1100, which reopened last month after a major refurbishment. One, associated with Saint Cuileáin of Glankeen, County Tipperary (subject of a recent post), was fitted with a lavish ‘crest’ writhing with interlaced designs and human faces. The other, said to have belonged to Saint Conall Cael of Inishkeel, County Donegal, was later fitted with a brass plate engraved with Irish and Viking ornament.

Shrine made for Saint Conall Cael's bell in the AD 1400s (1889,0902.23)

Bell-shrine (1889,0902.23)

In the 1400s a gem-encrusted shrine (displayed in Room 40) was made to house it. These were not just objects of veneration: they were also thought capable of miraculous actions, such as healing the sick or bringing success in battle. As late as the 1600s Saint Cuileáin’s bell was being used as a lie-detector in the local community, its life-history already a millennium long and counting.

Each object displayed in Room 41 is infused with history, of course; but the hand-bells of Saints Cuileáin and Conall Cael wear it on their sleeves more than most. Objects like these set my imagination off and running, and perhaps I’m not the only one. Since I joined the Museum, I’ve found that hand-bells are second only to the Sutton Hoo ship burial in terms of the number of public enquiries that I receive. The colourful histories, sacred associations and local connections acquired over their long lives must be partly responsible for their popularity. Now newly installed in Room 41, the bells have just begun the next chapter of their extraordinary biographies.

The newly re-opened Room 41

The newly re-opened Room 41


The Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery of Sutton Hoo and Europe, AD 300–1100 is now open in Room 41. Admission is free.
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The Mooghaun Hoard: early ‘currency’ or bands of equality?

Mooghaun Hoard. © National Museum of IrelandNeil Wilkin, curator, British Museum

Question: What do you call a Bronze Age coin specialist?
Answer: Flat broke and misspent, for there is no evidence from this period of coins or currency systems, as we know them, in Europe!

And yet… a journey through the Citi Money Gallery begins with a group of Bronze Age objects. Among them are gold objects from the ‘Mooghaun hoard’ (about 800 BC), a find that has recently been honoured with a place in Fintan O’Toole’s ‘A History of Ireland in 100 Objects’ series, supported by the National Museum of Ireland and the Royal Irish Academy.

Some of the objects from the Mooghaun Hoard on display in the Money Gallery.

Some of the objects from the Mooghaun Hoard on display in the Money Gallery.

But why are they in the gallery? Their recent honour gave me the perfect opportunity to explore that question.

The start of our story is bitter-sweet: in March of 1854, workmen in County Clare, Ireland discovered at least 150 finds of what was then described as ‘fairy gold’, weighing approximately 5kg, mostly consisting of jewellery. The gold must have poured from the small stone chamber it was found in – childhood dreams of gold pots and rainbows come to mind!

Objects from the Mooghaun Hoard in the British Museum collection, and the National Museum of Ireland collection, as well as some reproductions.

Objects from the Mooghaun Hoard in the British Museum collection, and the National Museum of Ireland collection, as well as some reproductions. © National Museum of Ireland

It was certainly one of the biggest discoveries of Bronze Age gold ever found in Ireland or even North West Europe. Sadly, accounts tell of hats full of gold being sold for less than their true value to be melted down, forever lost. Only 29 objects survive today.

Around the same time, in Mold, Wales, a separate group of workmen came across another famous find of Bronze Age gold, known as the Mold Gold Cape. Like the Mooghaun Hoard, the cape was also dispersed. But unlike the Mooghaun Hoard, the fragments were not melted down and they were eventually purchased and re-assembled. So, why did the Mooghaun Hoard not receive the same treatment?

Unlike the complex decoration of the unique Mold Gold Cape, most of the Mooghaun finds consisted of many very similar bracelets or armlets with very little decoration. Perhaps they were a way of storing wealth – even an early form of ‘currency’? In melting and spending the gold, the modern finders may have been recognising this key quality.

However, there is more to the story. The finds at Mooghaun were made close to (or even within) a lake and close to one of the biggest Bronze Age hillforts in Ireland. This setting is typical of Irish hoards deposited for spiritual and religious reasons, rather than ‘banked’ for safe-keeping to be returned for later.

The similarity of the objects could also relate to the status of individuals. For while the Mold Gold Cape could only be worn by a single, very important person, the Mooghaun hoard could decorate the bodies of many people at once.

The Mooghaun finds therefore tell us that not all gold was for important individuals and that we can’t always separate economics from spiritual beliefs. In that sense, they provide the perfect starting place to the story of the history of money.

The Mooghaun Hoard is object 11 in A History of Ireland in 100 objects

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This is the Codex Sinaiticus, the world’s oldest surviving Bible. It’s a star loan from @britishlibrary in our forthcoming #EgyptExhibition and dates back to the 4th century AD. 
Handwritten in Greek, not long after the reign of the Roman emperor Constantine the Great (AD 306–337), it contains the earliest complete manuscript of the New Testament. 
The codex will be displayed alongside two other founding texts of the Hebrew and Muslim faiths: the First Gaster Bible, also being loaned by @britishlibrary, and a copy of the Qur’an from @bodleianlibs in Oxford. These important texts show the transition of Egypt from a world of many gods to a majority Christian and then majority Muslim society, with Jewish communities periodically thriving throughout.  #Egypt #history #bible #faith #onthisday in 31 BC: Cleopatra and Mark Antony were defeated by Octavian at the Battle of Actium. After the death of Cleopatra, Egypt was brought into the Roman Empire and the ancient Egyptian gods, such as the falcon god Horus shown here, were reimagined in Roman dress to establish the new authority. 
Discover how Egypt’s religious and political landscape was transformed over 12 centuries in our #EgyptExhibition, opening 29 October 2015.

#history #ancientEgypt #Cleopatra #RomanEmpire New exhibition announced: ‘Egypt: faith after the pharaohs’ opens 29 October 2015

Discover Egypt’s journey over 1,200 years, as Jews, Christians and Muslims transformed an ancient land. From 30 BC to AD 1171, #EgyptExhibition charts the change from a world of many gods to the worship of one God.

Tickets now on sale at britishmuseum.org/egypt

#egypt #history #faith For our final #MuseumInstaSwap post we’re highlighting the 'Make Do and Mend' campaign of the Second World War, as told by our partner @ImperialWarMuseums in their #FashionontheRation exhibition.

The campaign was launched to encourage people to make their existing supplies of clothes last longer. Posters and leaflets were circulated with advice on subjects including how to prevent moth damage to woollens, how to make shoes last longer or how to care for different fabrics. As the war went on, buying new was severely restricted by coupon limits and no longer an option for many people. The ability to repair, renovate and make one's own clothes became increasingly important. Although shoppers would have to hand over coupons for dressmaking fabric as well as readymade clothes, making clothes was often cheaper and saved coupons. ‘Make Do and Mend’ classes took place around the country, teaching skills such as pattern cutting. Dress makers and home sewers often had to be experimental in their choice of fabrics. Despite disliking much of the official rhetoric to Make Do and Mend, many people demonstrated great creativity and adaptability in dealing with rationing. Individual style flourished. Shortages necessitated imaginative use of materials, recycling and renovating of old clothes and innovative use of home-made accessories, which could alter or smarten up an outfit. Many women used furnishing fabrics for dressmaking until these too were rationed. Blackout material, which did not need points, was also sometimes used. Parachute silk was highly prized for underwear, nightclothes and wedding dresses.

We've really enjoyed working with and learning from our friends at @imperialwarmuseums this week. You can catch up on all our posts and discover many more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 4773 For #MuseumInstaSwap we’re discovering the street style of the Second World War in the #FashionontheRation exhibition at @ImperialWarMuseums. In this archive photo a female member of the Air Raid Precautions staff applies her lipstick between emergency calls.

In wartime Britain it was unfashionable to be seen wearing clothes that were obviously showy, yet women were frequently implored not to let 'standards' slip too far. There was genuine concern that a lack of interest in personal appearance could be a sign of low morale, which could have a detrimental impact on the war effort. The government's concern for the morale of women was a major factor in the decision to continue the manufacture of cosmetics, though in much reduced quantities. Make-up was never rationed, but was subject to a luxury tax and was very expensive. Many cosmetics firms switched some of their production to items needed for the war effort. Coty, for example, were known for their face powder and perfumes but also made army foot powder and anti-gas ointment. Make-up and hair styles took on an increased importance and many women went to great lengths to still feel well-dressed and stylish even if their clothes were last season's, their stockings darned and accessories home-made. As with clothing, women found creative ways around shortages, with beetroot juice used for a splash of lip colour and boot polish passing for mascara.

Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap © IWM (D 176) In the @ImperialWarMuseums exhibition ‘Fashion on the Ration: 1940s street style’ we can see how men and women found new ways to dress while clothing was rationed. Displays of original clothes from the era, from military uniforms to utility underwear, reveal what life was really like on the home front in wartime Britain.

Despite the limitations imposed by rationing, clothing retailers sought to retain and even expand their customer base during the Second World War. Britain's high street adapted in response to wartime conditions, and this was reflected in their retail ranges. The government intervened in the mass manufacture of high street fashions with the arrival of the Utility clothing scheme in 1942. Shoppers carefully spent their precious clothing coupons and money on new clothes to make sure their purchases would be suitable across spring, summer and autumn and winter. Despite the restrictions, the war and civilian austerity did not put an end to creative design, commercial opportunism or fashionable trends on the British home front.

#FashionontheRation exhibition runs @imperialwarmuseums until 31 August.

Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap.
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