Sunday 18 March 2018

Ancient prayer book found in bog

Grainne Cunningham

An ancient manuscript uncovered in a bog is being hailed the Irish equivalent of the Dead Sea Scrolls

FRAGMENTS of an ancient manuscript uncovered in a midlands bog were yesterday hailed by archaeological experts as the greatest find from a European bog.

The discovery of the Psalter, or Book of Psalms, in the south Midlands was described by the National Museum of Ireland as the Irish equivalent of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The fragile pieces of vellum, or calf skin, were unearthed by a bulldozer milling peat last Thursday, and within hours National Museum director Pat Wallace had rushed to the site.

Last night Mr Wallace described the find as the pinnacle of his 35-year career and said the fragments were of "staggering importance" in terms of the insight they provided into ancient Christian civilisation in Ireland.

While it is impossible to know how the manuscript, written in Latin, ended up in a bog, it may have been lost in transit or dumped by a raider who did not understand the value of the book - which even 1,200 years ago would have been a prized possession.

Crucially, the owner of the bog where the pages were found knew how to prevent their deterioration until the experts arrived.

He immediately covered the fragments with damp bog soil - otherwise the flimsy material could have dried and blown away just hours later.

On Friday, the pages were carefully removed from the bog and transported to the National Museum's conservation laboratory, where they are being stored in refrigeration until a programme of painstaking conservation work can be commenced. That process could take several years and will require the help of international experts, according to Mr Wallace.

Dr Bernard Meehan, Head of Manuscripts at Trinity College Dublin, said this was the first discovery of an Irish Early Medieval manuscript in two centuries. "Initial impressions place the composition date of the manuscript at about 800AD, but how soon after this date it was lost we may never know."

Dr Meehan is to advise on the context and background of the manuscript.

The most optimistic estimate of when the book will be ready for public view is about two years.

It may have been dumped by a raider who did not understand its value

Then it will be displayed as a prized exhibit in the Early Christian gallery of the museum, alongside the Ardagh chalice and the Derrynaflan paten.

Arts Minister John O'Donoghue applauded the action of the finders and he congratulated the museum both on the discovery and on the promptness of its report.

"This most fortunate of discoveries testifies to the high achievements of our early Christian civilisation and to the responsibility of the present generation in the preservation of our unparalleled legacy from the past," he said.

The head of conservation at the National Museum, Rolly Read, said that while the conservation of the book was "daunting", it was an "incredible privilege" to work on something of such importance.

The exact site of the find remains a secret while a team of archaeologists explores it in effort to uncover any remaining hidden treasures.

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