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11 June 2006
Irish archeology nears crisis point

The unprecedented boom in property development and road building in Ireland has unearthed thousands of archeological artefacts but most of them lie gathering dust in warehouses, hidden from public view. With nearly 200 times more excavations being carried out than in the early 1990s, new discoveries are no longer being reported and Ireland's museums no longer have space to house them. As a result, academics claim the country is being denied an opportunity to learn more about its history.
     A report prepared by University College Dublin (UCD) and the Heritage Council says an unprecedented amount of new information about Ireland's ancient cultures remains unpublished because of 'systemic failures' and pressure from developers to get archeology 'out of the way for the next development'. Archaeology 2020 says the treasure trove of knowledge and artefacts that should have accompanied the increase in excavations is not reaching the public domain.
     Dr Muiris O'Suilleabhain, the head of the archeology department at UCD, and one of the authors of the report, said the entire archeology sector is on the verge of crisis.
"A generation ago you would have had a handful of excavations every year. These would have been looked after by the national institutions and artefacts would be handed to them. We now have 2,000 licences granted each year, the private sector has mushroomed, but the state sector has grown very little. We could be completely transforming our knowledge about Ireland's past, but instead we're not. There's an overwhelming amount of material, but the people writing reports in many cases are totally unaware they have made finds of great significance."
     A backlog of some 4,000 excavation reports are unpublished and the number is growing almost daily. Meanwhile the volume of archeological material being stored has grown so large that the National Museum has run out of space to house it. Eamonn Kelly, the National Museum's keeper of Irish antiquities, said: "We don't have the facilities to deal with it now. We'd have to close galleries to put it all under a roof. We will reach crisis point."
Kelly said archeology firms working for private developers or the National Roads Authority are storing huge amounts of material and there is no funding in place to care for it. The UCD report recommends reforming the tendering process for state building projects and establishing new national bodies to oversee the sector. However, this is not enough according to Kelly, who said many archeologists are underqualified.
     Recent discoveries as a result of the development boom include a set of wood pipes believed to be part of Europe's oldest piped musical instrument. Dated 2137-1909 BCE, they were found at Charlesland, Co Wicklow, during a residential development, along with other artefacts providing evidence spanning millenniums of town planning, architecture, battles and epidemics. But legislation protecting such discoveries and making them automatically the property of the state has left little incentive for developers to stall work and pay increased costs for the excavations.

Source: The Sunday Times (11 June 2006)

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