Visualizing Antiquity

  • Maggie M. Williams
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


No matter which road you choose to approach the ruined medieval monastery at Clonmacnoise, county Offaly, you can just barely make out the tips of the round tower and ancient churches over the rolling green hills of the Irish midlands. Anticipating an imminent moment of real contact with the medieval past, you are first guided through an experience of the present, as the entryway into the site feeds into the visitors’ parking lot. Leaving your vehicle, you follow a directed path through tall hedges that make it nearly impossible to see the ruins in the distance. You pass a modern statue of a pilgrim, intended to enhance your expectant sensations of reverence, nostalgia, and possibly even faith. When you finally come upon a doorway, it is the entrance to the Visitors’ Centre, a modern construction that houses the gift shop, a small movie theater, an elaborate exhibition, and perhaps most surprisingly, many of the original medieval objects from the site.1


Ordnance Survey Ringed Cross Royal Irish Academy East Face Irish Cross 
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  1. 1.
    This type of guided sequence is typical of many heritage sites in Ireland and similar tourist attractions elsewhere. The curatorial choices made by the designers of Irish heritage sites have been analyzed by David Brett as “narrative structures”. See David Brett, The Construction of Heritage (Cork, Ireland: Cork University Press, 1996).Google Scholar
  2. For an astute analysis of the theme-park phenomenon, see Annabel Wharton, Selling Jerusalem: Relics, Replicas, Theme Parks (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    Heather King directed the excavations at Clonmacnoise during the 1990s, and most of the findings were published in the volume she edited. Heather A. King, ed., Clonmacnoise Studies: Seminar Papers 1994 (Dublin: Dúchas, the Heritage Service, 1998).Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    For a wonderful analysis of the concomitant issues of dis- and re-membering, see Kathleen Biddick, “Humanist History and the Haunting of Virtual Technologies: Problems of Memory and Rememoration”, in The Shock of Medievalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998), pp. 165–84.Google Scholar
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    The best sources for Petrie’s biography include William Stokes, The Life and Labours in Art and Archaeology of George Petrie (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1868).Google Scholar
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    This transcription and translation are taken from Harbison, The High Crosses of Ireland, 1:356–57. Only a few letters of the inscription remain legible today: ANDORRO/AR/D on the east and NDM on the west. For more on interpreting the inscription, see Peter Harbison, “The Extent of Royal Patronage on Irish High Crosses”, Studia Celtica Japonica 6 (1994): 77–105. Françoise Henry, “Around an Inscription: The Cross of the Scriptures at Clonmacnoise”, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 110 (1980): 36–46. Dómhnall O’Murchadha and Giollamuire O’Murchú, “Fragmentary Inscriptions from the West Cross at Durrow, the South Cross at Clonmacnoise and the Cross of Kinnitty”, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 118 (1988): 53–66.Google Scholar
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    Although some scholars have questioned the dating of the Cross of the Scriptures, I am convinced by the early tenth-century date. Not only does the inscription name King Fland and Abbot Colman, but the carving style is also similar to other crosses that bear comparable inscriptions, such as those at Durrow and Monasterboice. For confirmation of the tenth-century date, see Henry, “Around an Inscription” and Conleth Manning, “Clonmacnoise Cathedral”, in Clonmacnoise Studies: Seminar Papers 1994, ed. Heather A. King (Dublin: Dúchas, The Heritage Service, 1998), pp. 57–87.Google Scholar
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    Roger Stalley has argued that the bottom relief depicts Moses and the Brazen Serpent, while Peter Harbison contends that the scene and its companion in the panel above are episodes from the Joseph story. I posit that resonances with both would have appealed to tenth-century viewers, who could have interpreted the imagery in multiple ways. See Roger Stalley, “European Art and the Irish High Crosses”, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 90C.6 (1990): 135–58 and Harbison, The High Crosses of Ireland, 1:202–04. In a recent conference paper, Stalley changed his position, arguing that the figures may represent contemporary secular leaders. Roger Stalley, “The Irish High Crosses—Time for a Re-Think?” (Kalamazoo, MI: Forty-Sixth International Congress on Medieval Studies, 2011).Google Scholar
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    Tom Dunne, “Towards a National Art? George Petrie’s Two Versions of The Last Circuit of Pilgrims at Clonmacnoise”, in Murray, George Petrie (1790–1866), pp. 125–36.Google Scholar
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  42. 32.
    In a recent article, Marian Bleeke makes a related argument regarding Petrie’s role in constructing Irish art history through his antiquarian activities. See Marian Bleeke, “George Petrie, the Ordnance Survey, and Nineteenth-Century Constructions of the Irish Past”, in Medieval Art and Architecture after the Middle Ages, eds. Janet T. Marquardt and Alyce A. Jordan (Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009), pp. 129–49.Google Scholar
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    See Dunne, “Towards a National Art?” in Murray, George Petrie (1790–1866), p. 128.Google Scholar
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    Dunne, “Towards a National Art?” in George Petrie (1790–1866), p. 133.Google Scholar
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    Dunne, “Towards a National Art?” in George Petrie (1790–1866), p. 133.Google Scholar
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    As Dunne suggested, Petrie had a sense that contemporary Ireland was “a prisoner of that past, and all that could be done was to achieve greater understanding of what was lost”. Dunne, “Towards a National Art?” in George Petrie (1790–1866), p. 129.Google Scholar
  50. 39.
    Over the past several decades, several scholars have investigated the colonial role of the Ordnance Survey. See Andrews, A Paper Landscape, and Stiofán O’Cadhla and Eamon O’Cuív, Civilizing Ireland: Ordnance Survey 1824–1842: Ethnography, Cartography, Translation (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2007). More recently, some scholars have felt a need to come to the defense of the Survey’s vast production of information. For example, Joep Leerssen, “Petrie: Polymath and Innovator”, writes, “The Irish Ordnance Survey has come to enjoy a poor reputation (as yet another Anglocentric nail in the coffin of native culture), which is undeserved and probably due to some unguarded remarks by Douglas Hyde (in his lecture ‘On the necessity for de-Anglicising Ireland’, 1891) and Brian Friel’s misguided and misleading play Translations”, in Murray, George Petrie (1790–1866), p. 8.Google Scholar
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    Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (New York: Routledge, 1995), pp. 3–4.Google Scholar
  52. 50.
    The round towers are colossal stone structures, many of which are approximately one-hundred-feet high and capped with conical stone roofs. Petrie established that they were constructions of the Christian era, built by native Irishmen. He also suggested that they should be identified with the cloichtechs, or bell-houses, mentioned in the written sources, and that they might have served as keeps. Prior to Petrie’s work, scholars had presented a variety of speculative theories that denied the possibility that the round towers could have been constructed by local builders—theories ranged from the idea that they might have been sorcerers’ temples or astrological observatories to the notion that they were built by Phoenicians, African sea champions, or Danes. Like the round towers, the high crosses have frequently been considered improbable oddities. See Michael F. Hearn, Romanesque Sculpture: The Revival of Monumental Stone Sculpture in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981), p. 22, who refers to them as “provincial survival[s].”Google Scholar
  53. 51.
    Petrie was profoundly motivated by previous suggestions that the surviving Irish ruins could not possibly be of native origin, such as Sir James Ware’s declaration that no stone buildings had been built in Ireland prior to the twelfth century. For a summary of the round tower controversy, see Joep Leerssen, Remembrance and Imagination: Patterns in the Historical and Literary Representation of Ireland in the Nineteenth Century (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997), pp. 109–46.Google Scholar
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    Even Michael Camille refers to Petrie as “the founder of Irish archaeology”. Michael Camille, “Domesticating the Dragon: The Rediscovery, Reproduction, and Re-Invention of Early Irish Metalwork”, in Imagining an Irish Past: The Celtic Revival, 1840–1940, ed. T. J. Edelstein (Chicago: David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, 1990), p. 1. In fact, Petrie did found the Irish Archaeological Society. See Joep Leerssen, “Petrie: Polymath and Innovator”, in Murray, George Petrie (1790–1866), p. 10.Google Scholar
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    T. K. Cromwell’s Excursions through Ireland (1820–21)Google Scholar
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© Maggie M. Williams 2012

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  • Maggie M. Williams

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