Children’s Heritage Workshops in August!

We’re running a number of free and inclusive children’s workshops in the month of August in Galway, Laois, Sligo, and Roscommon!

We’re part of the Summer Stars programme for Galway Public Libraries, with free children’s workshops in prehistoric pottery making at 11.30am & 1.30pm in Moylough Library on Thursday 4th August, and at 10.30am & 12.30pm in Dunmore Library on Friday 5th August. Please contact the libraries to book your place, as places are limited. These workshops are kindly supported through the Heritage in Schools programme under The Heritage Council.

For Heritage Week, we’ll be in Laois Libraries for free prehistoric pottery workshops on Wednesday 17th August – at 10am in Mountrath Library, at 12.15 in Abbeyleix Library, and at 3pm in Durrow Library. Please contact the libraries to book your place, as places are limited.

We also have our pottery workshops at Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery on Saturday 20th August at 11.30am & 1.30pm. These workshops are specially scheduled for Wild Child Day in Heritage Week, and are kindly supported through the Heritage in Schools programme under The Heritage Council. Advance booking is required via email to

Finally, we have a free train-making workshop at the Castlerea Railway Museum on Sunday 21st August at 11.30am. Advance booking is required via email to

Join us for some great hands-on heritage experiences – for any enquiries about any of the workshops, please contact us at!

Artefact Biography: A hoard of stone axes and a possible axe pendant from Runnacocka, County Roscommon

Held by the National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology, the original museum record for these artefacts, numbered 1998:5 – 8, reads: “Hoard of four polished stone axes found in the bog at Td. Runnacocka, Co. Roscommon”.

The record documents a collection of four deliberately deposited small axeheads made from shale, sandstone and limestone, which are likely to date to the Neolithic period and which were discovered “at a depth of c. 10 ft.” during turf cutting.

Figure 1 The Runnacocka stone axe hoard


The term hoard refers to a collection of objects which appear to have been deliberately hidden or deposited. Archaeological excavation has shown that hoards of varying object types – ranging from stone and metal objects, to weapons, jewellery and coins – have been present in Europe from at least the Neolithic era up until the post-medieval period.

A number of theories have been suggested for the existence of hoards, whose function and meaning may likely have changed over this long period of time.  A large number of the post-medieval coin hoards may have originated as an attempt to safeguard wealth in times of instability. However, the reasons for the presence of prehistoric period hoards have been opened to further interpretation, with theories ranging from their use as ritual or votive offerings, to their possibility as unclaimed caches belonging to merchants or craftsmen. Popular academic theory has promoted the probability that the prehistoric hoards are likely to hold significant symbolic value and ritual meaning through their deliberate choices and placement of objects.

Figure 2 The Runnacocka stone axe hoard

Stone axe hoards

Prehistoric period hoards show a frequent pattern of deliberate choices of placement in wet environments such as rivers, lakes and bogs, as well as in dry ground. Stone axe hoards are commonly discovered in wet environments. This aspect gives credence to their suggested function as votive offerings, as it would have been difficult to retrieve a hoard from such a location if they were originally meant to be temporarily stored and later recovered. At least sixty – seven stone axe hoards are known from Ireland.

The significance of stone axes

Stone axes were in use in Ireland from the Early Mesolithic period until well into the Bronze Age era. They were a common, long-lasting and functional object, which were used mainly as a chopping tool. Further to this, archaeological research has revealed evidence of development over time in their utilisation, appearance and significance, suggesting the importance of axes as both functional and symbolic objects to the people of the past. Examples such as the inclusion of axes as grave goods in burials, the significant placement of axes in monuments and the consumption and value of axes of non-functional size and of non-native stone demonstrate that axes held significant prominence in prehistoric Europe. Specifically, the Neolithic remains of the Breton region show prominent evidence of the consumption of axes made from exotic stone, and a number of the Breton passage tombs show representations of stone axes in their megalithic art.

A possible axe pendant

One of the axeheads from the hoard is particularly unique. The shale axehead (1998:6) is made distinct by a sub-circular perforation through its narrowed hafting butt (See Figure 3). Perforated axeheads are a relatively rare form of artefact. A number of the examples of this artefact type feature this form of perforation located at the butt of the axe. In these cases, the perforation is considered too small to have been used for a shaft, instead potentially forming a means of suspension for an ‘axe pendant’.

Figure 3 Perforated axehead/possible axe pendant (Museum Registration Number 1998:6) from Runnacocka, Co. Roscommon

Following the discovery of the Runnacocka axes in 1998, a contemporary report by the Irish Stone Axe Project noted the rarity and importance of the find. It observed that at that time, of the approximate twenty thousand stone axes known from Ireland, only thirty-nine examples were perforated. Further to this, the Runnacocka perforated axe was one of only fourteen axes which was perforated at the butt. A further reason for the significance of the Runnacocka axe was that it provided the first clear evidence that the perforation of axes was a practice contemporary with the use of stone axes as a tool. It had previously been suggested that the ‘axe pendants’ represented a later modification to an originally functional axe – a possible form of wearing an earlier curiosity during a later chronological period.

Axe pendants may have potentially formed a ritual or representational role in Neolithic society. The megalithic art of the passage tomb on the Breton island of Gavrinis depicts several axes, displaying a domestic public object within the private spheres of the burial chamber. Further to this, it has been noted that the Gavrinis interior slab numbered L6 portrays a pair of perforated axes, which may represent axe pendants (See Figure 4). This may possibly indicate the symbolic and societal importance of this form of artefact, and potentially a wider stylistic or ritual European influence from this period.

Figure 4 – Gavrinis Passage Tomb Slab L6, showing a pair of perforated axes


Bradley, R. (1990) The Passage of Arms: An archaeological analysis of prehistoric hoards and votive deposits, Cambridge University Press.

Shee-Twohig, E. (1981) The Megalithic Art of Western Europe, Clarendon Press, Oxford.

N.B. This article was originally an online publication by the author for the National Museum of Ireland during their role in the National Museum Inventory Project, which surveyed and recorded the huge artefact collections gathered by the institution since its first inception. It can also be found at this link.

Fr. Frank Browne SJ and his Titanic legacy

On the date of the 109th anniversary of the tragic sinking of the Titanic, we remember the importance of the Titanic photographs taken by Fr. Frank Browne SJ. Fr. Francis (Frank) Browne was an Irish Jesuit priest who over his lifetime developed an incredible talent for photography, capturing images of Ireland and the world during the immense changes that came with the turn of the twentieth century.

Image (c) Father Browne Collection

Fr. Browne’s photography first came to public notice through his record of one of the most prominent events of the twentieth century. In 1912, Frank was gifted a first-class ticket for the first two legs of the maiden voyage of the Titanic. While onboard, he used his camera to photograph the ship and its occupants, creating a fascinating first-hand record of the experience of a passenger.

UIG450665 Credit: Gymnasium on the Titanic, 1912 (b/w photo) by Browne, Father Frank (1880-1960)/ Fr Browne SJ Collection/UIG The Bridgeman Art Library Nationality / copyright status: Irish / in copyright until 2031 PLEASE NOTE: This image is protected by the artist’s copyright which needs to be cleared by you. If you require assistance in clearing permission we will be pleased to help you.

Frank was offered the cover of his fare for the third leg of the voyage by an American family onboard. He arranged for a telegram to be sent to the Provincial Superior of the Jesuits to ask for permission to take up this offer. A short response was issued: “GET OFF THAT SHIP – PROVINCIAL”. As he left the ship, Frank unknowingly took what would be some of the last remaining photographs of the Titanic. When the ship sank days later, Frank’s photographs were published on the front pages of newspapers across the world.

UIG450654 Credit: Last Picture of the Titanic, 11th April 1912 (b/w photo) by Browne, Father Frank (1880-1960)/ Fr Browne SJ Collection/UIG The Bridgeman Art Library Nationality / copyright status: Irish / in copyright until 2031 PLEASE NOTE: This image is protected by the artist’s copyright which needs to be cleared by you. If you require assistance in clearing permission we will be pleased to help you.

The Titanic photos form only a small section of the incredible photo-journalism work carried out by Fr. Browne throughout his life. In 1915, Fr. Browne became a World War I chaplain to the First Battalion of the Irish Guards fighting in France and Southern Belgium. During his years at the front line, he visually documented the harrowing experiences and conditions of the soldiers, recording his views as a witness to war.

Image (c) Father Browne Collection

Fr. Browne was one of the most important and prolific photographers of the twentieth century. Over his lifetime, he is thought to have taken over 42,000 photographs: spanning scenes in Ireland, England, Europe, Australia, and the wider world. His work recorded thousands of images of people and places which today provide an important visual history of Ireland and the wider world in the twentieth century.

Scéal Heritage is proud to be currently working on a new Fr. Browne exhibition with the Office of Public Works, scheduled for opening in 2022 at Emo Court in Co. Laois, Frank’s former Jesuit novitiate and home for many years. The new exhibition will be a chance to celebrate the life of Fr. Browne and recognise the importance of his incredible photographic record.

Please note that all images are the copyright of the Fr. Browne Collection.

A Vinegar Valentine for St. Valentine’s Day!

For St. Valentine’s Day, enjoy a suffragette themed ‘Vinegar Valentine’ postcard! Vinegar Valentines were a form of ‘comic’ or anti-Valentine, popular from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. Vinegar Valentines were designed to insult and mock the unfortunate recipients through blunt contemporary humour – on this postcard the sender has even continued the ‘vinegar’ sentiment with a handwritten verse! The cards were mass-produced and sent to both men and women for Valentine’s Day, with the card message commonly ranging from lightly teasing to cruel and particularly nasty in tone. (Photos copyright D. Gilligan)

New Year, New Opportunities!

Happy New Year to all those starting back to work after their break!

At the start of a new year, it’s always good to review the projects that were completed in the year before. In such a strange year as 2020, Scéal Heritage Consultancy was privileged to have the opportunity to work on an exciting range of projects focusing on museum exhibition and education, audience engagement, and collections management. For 2021, we’re hoping that we will have the chance to work with more museums and heritage organisations on some equally exciting projects that grow and develop their offerings for the public!

Artefact Biography: A Carved Walrus Tooth Figure from the National Museum of Ireland

The original National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology register entry for this carved figural object reads – “Carving, in sea horse tooth, representing a Greenlander attacked by a bear. Height 2in. Presented with No. 2530″.

A scene carved in ivory

The object shows a male bear attacking a human figure from behind, locking his paws around their body and opening his jaws to bite their head. The human figure is crouched, dressed in a heavy hooded coat. Small incised lines on the bear’s coat and the hood of the human’s coat are used to show the use of fur and texture. The scene shows that the attacked person does not hold any weapons – only a possible woven bag – suggesting that this is a surprise attack scenario rather than the outcome of a hunting expedition. The piece appears to be carved from the ivory of a walrus tooth – the “sea horse tooth” referred to in the original register entry. It is most likely to be a portable decorative carving, or potentially a gaming piece.

Games & Gaming Pieces

Gaming pieces are a valuable and informative section of material culture for the archaeologist. They enlighten us on contemporary craft materials, recreational activities, and beliefs, themes and stories from the time through their use and visual appearance. Gaming pieces can vary widely in their appearance and materials – ranging from simple stone counters, to patterned or figural wooden or animal bone examples, up to carved ivory depictions such as this one. This particular piece may have been part of a prestige or luxury gaming set.

It is difficult to identify which form of board game this piece may have originated from. There is a possibility that the object may be from a form of bear game. Bear games, or hunt games, are two-player strategy games simulating a hunter and prey situation. There are four pieces involved – three representing hunters, and one representing the prey of the bear. However, most pieces from this game are generally plain and not representative of figural characters. A note on the original acquisition record mentions that the object was supposed to have been used as a chess-man, but this piece does not fit the character of a traditional chess piece in its choice of representation. Due to an absence of clearly distinctive visual styles for comparative dating, it is difficult to assign a date of origin to this gaming piece, and it may range in date from the medieval to the post-medieval period.

Walrus Ivory

Ivory has excellent working properties which make it very suitable for ornamental carving, and the expansion of political and commercial relations with Scandinavia in the medieval period led to the increased popularity of walrus ivory as a craft material. Greenland and Northern Norway are thought to have been important sources for this raw material, and this source may be connected to the identification of the human figure in the piece as a “Greenlander”. It is likely that entire walrus tusks were traded to ivory-working centres, where the raw material was worked into a range of luxury ecclesiastical and secular objects. Experts examining the Lewis Chessmen estimate that up to four gaming pieces could have been carved from a single tusk.

Object Origins

This object was donated to the museum of the Royal Irish Academy in 1857 by the wife of Robert Ball, a renowned Irish naturalist and the father of Valentine Ball, the geologist who was later to become director of the Dublin Science and Art Museum (now the National Museum of Ireland). Robert Ball promoted natural history and zoology through his association with the Dublin University Museum and the Royal Zoological Society of Ireland. It may be possible that this object was a gift or collection piece from abroad by Ball, which may account for the presence of this possible ethnographic object in Ireland.

The Bear throughout History

Bears are an animal which feature in a prominent position in mythology and belief throughout world history. Previously considered the king of the animals and the one closest to humans, a continued form of veneration of the bear can be seen from antiquity until the Middle Ages. This practice ended with the advent of Christianity and actions by the church to combat the threat of the pagan legends and beliefs regarding the power and abilities of this animal. A number of societies throughout time were believed to revere the cult of the bear, and theories exist that the presence of this cult of devotion may even possibly stretch back as far as the Palaeolithic. The influence of the bear can be seen within the art and language of the Celtic influences of the Iron Age, in the berserker tales of Norse mythology and through the use of the bear as a symbol of royal power and dominance in the later Middle Ages.

It is likely that the bear depicted in this piece is actually a polar bear, and the figure of the “Greenlander” an Inuit. The Inuit in Canada and Greenland were one of the societies believed to practice the cult of the bear. The polar bear, the most prized animal hunted by the Inuit, is known as Nanuk, and their mythology proclaims him as a powerful master of bears with shape-shifting abilities to transform to man. Perhaps the gaming piece demonstrates the relationship between the Inuit and the polar bear to the foreign onlooker – their shared natural environment, and their mutual danger to each other as hunters.

N.B. This article was originally an online publication by the author for the National Museum of Ireland during their role in the National Museum Inventory Project, which surveyed and recorded the huge artefact collections gathered by the institution since its first inception. It can also be found at this link.

Finding Fionn Mac Cumhail: The Mythology and Archaeology of the 1931 Sheebeg Excavation

From Saturday 10th October, The Dock Arts Centre will broadcast a recorded interview with Scéal Heritage about our research into the mythology and archaeology of the 1931 Sheebeg Excavation in County Leitrim.

During Christmas week in 1931, a local schoolteacher and a landowner began an amateur excavation of the prehistoric passage tomb on the hill of Sheebeg in Kiltubrid, South Leitrim. The tomb was locally believed to contain the remains of the legendary figures of Fionn Mac Cumhail and his wife Grainne, and national and international interest was raised with the subsequent discovery of two skeletons within, seen by many to confirm this myth. The results of the excavation elevated the archaeological site of Sheebeg cairn to a wide forum of public interest and discussion, and serves as an example of the complex and common relationship between archaeology and myth. This talk explores the story of the amateur excavation and its discoveries, and explores the overlaps in Irish mythology with archaeological monuments and artefacts.

The talk is free to all to stream, and further information on this research can be read in the associated 2015 article published in the Breifne Journal (see our Research and Publications Page for further information.

Listen to the talk at:

Heritage Week 2020 – Leitrim’s prehistoric past

Scéal Heritage were delighted to be a part of Heritage Week 2020 by being a contributor to the new “Connecting with Heritage” podcast series created on behalf of Leitrim County Council. The podcast series aims to highlight much of Leitrim’s natural, built, and cultural heritage from the people who know most about it. The podcast shares stories about potato planting and traditional farming methods; an overview of ecology and conservation; discussion on what sets Leitrim’s singing and fiddle music apart from other counties, and the importance of Leitrim’s prehistoric archaeology – all from a range of experts and local people passionate about heritage.

Scéal spoke about the importance of the prehistoric archaeological landscape in Leitrim. We highlighted some of the wonderful monuments such as the passage tombs at Sheemore and Sheebeg, and the wealth of wonderful artefacts which have been uncovered in Leitrim, including the Keshcarrigan Bowl and the Annadale shield (pictured above, image copyright NMI). You can listen to the podcast through either of the links below:

ContributorsJohn Reynolds has had an interest in the farming methods used by his ancestors since he learned them from his grandfather as a young boy. He takes us through the traditional way of sowing and harvesting perhaps the most historically important crop in Leitrim: the potato.Tommy Earley has been farming his family’s plot on the shores of Lough Allen for many years. When he first learned about organic farming in 1996, he didn’t know much about it – but what he heard he liked. He’s since ‘gone organic,’ and has adopted a number of new working practices to the farm, such as introducing new habitats and conserving existing ones.
  1. Traditional Farming
  2. Musical Heritage
  3. Local History
  4. Leitrim Prehistory
  5. Ecology

Capturing the story of Father Frank Browne

Scéal Heritage was delighted to be awarded the contract for the project role of Exhibition Researcher & Curator for compilation of an exciting new permanent exhibition on the life and works of Fr. Frank Browne at Emo Court, Co. Laois.

Scéal will be working closely with the OPW Historic Properties Team on this project, and looks forward to creating an exhibition which captures and commemorates the story of a unique and prolific photographer of the twentieth century.

Fr. Browne was one of Ireland’s greatest documentary photographers, recording thousands of images of the people and places of Ireland which today provide an important visual history of Ireland in the twentieth century. As a Jesuit priest, he spent twenty-eight years at the then Jesuit novitiate at Emo Court, a large neo-classical mansion in Co. Laois, which held his homemade photo laboratory where he processed some of the 42,000 photographs which he took throughout his life.

Fr. Browne first achieved fame for his photographs of the Titanic, which he captured while on a first class ticket from Southampton to Queenstown (Cobh) in 1912. In 1915, he became a World War I chaplain to the Irish Guards fighting in France and Southern Belgium, and used his photography skills to visually document this experience. As well as thousands of photographs taken of people, events, transport, and monuments across Ireland and Britain, he also photographed several Australian subjects during the two years he spent there in the years after the war.

Fr. Browne camera image is courtesy of Emo Court, Laois