Skulls, a Nazi director and the quest for the 'true' Celt
A new book tells the incredible tale of a 1930s Harvard-led research effort to determine a racial profile for the Celts. Archaeologist Mairéad Carew on what happened when eugenics came to Ireland
It has all the elements of a Spielberg movie: a Nazi museum director, possible spies and world-leading experts from Harvard University in a quest for Celtic skulls and artefacts. Yet this is no Hollywood creation, but the true story of a remarkable and overlooked episode in the early years of the Irish State known as the Harvard Archaeological Mission to Ireland.
In 1932, a group of scientists from the Ivy League college came to Ireland to investigate who the Celts were, where they had originated from and who were their descendants among modern Irish people. In many ways, this mission chimed with the new state's desire to assert its identity and Éamon de Valera's vision of a Celtic and Christian independent nation with roots deep in the ancient past.
The overall manager of the Harvard mission was Earnest A Hooton, one of the leading physical anthropologists in America at the time. He was in charge of the bone laboratory at the Peabody Museum at Harvard which contained human skulls from all over the world.
Hooton was a member of the American Eugenics Society, considered to be the key propaganda wing of the eugenics movement in America. Eugenics, the science of better breeding for human beings, was a variant of scientific racism. The American Eugenics Society supported Germany's eugenic programme. However, Hooton claimed to be against Nazism but he still wanted to set up an American national breeding bureau in America. He was eventually disciplined by Harvard for his 'inhuman' teachings.
The Harvard mission was part of a wider American eugenic project with investigators in Belgium, Britain, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Czechoslovakia, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and Germany. Potential immigrants to the United States were 'eugenically inspected.' Harsh new immigration laws had been enacted in the 1920s, after vigorous lobbying by eugenicists, in an effort to keep 'defectives' out. Hooton believed the Irish to be a pure race and a major source of American racial inheritance. Ireland was also chosen because of the Irish language as Celtic was believed to be an ancient Aryan language once spoken all over Europe.
The Nazi Director
As part of their work, the Harvard team measured prehistoric skulls and compared them to the skulls of living people. Twelve thousand people in all 32 counties were examined. Head shape, hair and eye colour and stature were measured to determine race. In addition, the mission carried out archaeological excavations in the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland. The leader of the excavations was Hugh O'Neill Hencken, whose grandfather had emigrated from Co Down to New York in the mid-19th century
Adolf Mahr, a suspected Nazi spy, and a specialist in European Celtic archaeology, worked closely with the Harvard archaeologists and advised them on which sites to select for excavation. He was appointed to the position of director of the National Museum of Ireland by De Valera in 1934.
Mahr had joined the Nazi party in 1933 and became head of the Auslandsorganisation, an organisation for Germans living abroad, involved in propaganda and espionage activities. He was described by Frederick Boland, from the Department of External Affairs, as "the most active and fanatical national socialist in the German colony here".
A year after the Harvard mission began they were visited by their colleague, Alfred Marston Tozzer, who was head of the Anthropology Department at Harvard. Tozzer sought to establish an American School of Celtic Studies centred at Ballinderry, Co Offaly, where the excavation of a crannóg was being carried out.
The curious thing about this is that Tozzer was not a specialist in European or Celtic archaeology, but was an expert in Mayan archaeology. He was the director of the International School of American Archaeology in Mexico and was involved in a spy scandal there where American archaeologists worked undercover as intelligence officers during World War I.
The Offaly connection
One can only wonder what an expert in Mayan culture was doing in Co Offaly, in the increasingly tense years before World War II. Tozzer became the director of the Honolulu office of the Office of Strategic Services (the forerunner of the CIA) and some of the leaders of the Harvard team were involved in American intelligence during World War II.
The American archaeologists excavated sites in counties Westmeath, Offaly, Meath, Sligo, Mayo, Clare and Waterford. They also worked on several sites in Northern Ireland in counties Antrim, Derry and Down. They dug crannógs, a stone fort, Bronze Age graves, megalithic tombs and Mesolithic sites. At Lagore crannóg, Co Meath, thousands of artefacts were recovered including evidence for bronze working, iron working, glassmaking, shoemaking and weaving. Swords and jewellery were also found. The most iconic objects from the Harvard mission included a Viking gaming board and a bronze hanging bowl from Ballinderry in Co Westmeath. These were sent to the Chicago World Fair in 1934 as part of an Irish Free State cultural exhibition.
The anthropologists who arrived in Ireland in 1932 came with the belief that the identity of the Irish was Celtic and they left believing they had found a Celtic type in Ireland. They used the word 'type' rather than 'race' in their report which would be published later - in the 1950s - as ideas about race were discredited after World War II.
In an article published in Life Magazine in 1939, it was reported that "no long-upper lipped, baboon-faced Irishmen common in political cartoons were found" by the Harvard mission to Ireland. Ape-like Irishmen were duly replaced by Celtic athletic youths laughing with happy maidens in the cosy homesteads in de Valera's eugenic dream.
Mairéad Carew is the author of The Quest for the Irish Celt - The Harvard Archaeological Mission to Ireland, 1932-1936, published by Irish Academic Press