Coolest Artifacts at the National Museum of Ireland Archaeology in Dublin

Coolest Artifacts at the National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology

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The National Museum of Ireland encompasses four different museum buildings, including the Decorative Arts and History Museum, Natural History Museum, and Archaeology Museum which are located in Dublin, and the Museum of Country Life in Castlebar. All four are totally free and open to the public!

My favorite ways to get to know a country are through hiking and archaeology, and on my travels these often go hand in hand. On the Kerry Way in Ireland I saw wedge tombs, stone circles, and Ogham stones, and on the Wicklow Way I hiked through the 6th century monastic city of Glendalough. Ending the Wicklow Way in Dublin meant I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to explore Ireland’s history further at the National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology.

Coolest things to see at the National Museum of Ireland Archaeology
The National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology on Kildare Street in Dublin is free to visit

This is one of the coolest museums I’ve ever visited in my life. Its extensive collections trace Ireland’s past from prehistory through the Middle Ages in the form of extremely tangible evidence – including the preserved bodies of its ancient people. You will not only read about the ancestors of this land, but also commune with them in the flesh.

The Archaeology Museum demonstrates how communities evolved here over the centuries as Viking and Anglo-Norman influence began to show up in the jewelry, tools, weapons, pottery, and religious relics found in Ireland. Visiting the museum is a great supplement to any other tours, day trips, or hikes you may do throughout the island as it adds extra layers of understanding.

Obviously everyone has their own interests and what I deem to be the “best” or “coolest” is highly subjective. I was particularly captured by the prehistoric exhibits. If you visit the museum, you may come away with an entirely different list of Coolest Artifacts at the National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology that doesn’t match mine at all (much like the museum itself, who published their own Top 10 Things to See list), and indeed I would encourage you to go and find out for yourself what it has to offer! This list is meant to pique your interest in case you’re not sure what to expect from the museum or whether you want to squeeze it into your Dublin travel itinerary.

I did the Afternoon Tea Vintage Bus Trip around Dublin just beforehand, as it drops you off about a 2 minute walk from the museum’s front door. It’s not the most informative Dublin tour of all the options (the free Dublin walking tours are more thorough, or you might like some of the paid walks with Yellow Umbrella Tours, Alternative Dublin, or Hidden Dublin), but that’s not really the point; it was a fun and unique way to experience the city for someone like me who has already been to Dublin before – and who loves desserts! The other people on the bus the day of my tour were all Irish locals who just wanted a unique brunch experience.

Alternatively, if you’re looking for a good lunch spot after your museum visit, Boxty House has amazing traditional Irish food. I had a boxty, a beef and stout stew with three types of bread (molasses and stout “black bread,” potato/beer “white bread,” and traditional brown soda bread), and a Bailey’s cheesecake – heaven. You may need a reservation.

The Hairy Lemon is a trendy pub a ten minute walk from the museum. It’s covered with memorabilia and scenes from The Commitments were filmed here. Bread 41 is a total institution for bread and pastries and is also only a 10 minute walk away. You won’t be far from the famous Murphy’s ice cream shop, where they have unique flavors like Irish Brown Bread. If you want something quieter, The Cake Cafe is hidden on a side street about a 20 minute walk away, and while it does have an array of cakes for your sweet tooth, they also have interesting breakfast and lunch menus.

  • Tuesday to Saturday: 10am to 5pm
  • Sunday and Monday: 1pm to 5pm
  • Closed Christmas Day, St. Stephen’s Day and Good Friday

I’m not aware of a tour that you can book direct through the museum, but there are third party private guided tours.

Archaeology is everywhere in Dublin! One of the most exciting things you can see outside of the National Museum is the Book of Kells at Trinity College. This is an unmissable priority, especially if you enjoy the Fadden More Psalter at the National Museum. You can book direct to see the Book of Kells and the stately Old Library, or for the entire immersive “Book of Kells Experience.” There are also third party guided tours.

I wrote an entire post about archaeological sites you can visit on a day trip from Dublin without a car.

Dugout Canoe from 2500 BC

The Addergoole Bog in Lurgan, County Galway beautifully preserved this hollowed oak tree logboat for thousands of years before it was discovered in 1902. Immediately striking is its impressive size. At 50 feet or 15.25 meters in length, it represents one of the longest dugout canoes ever found in Europe, and the oldest surviving Irish boat. 

The Lurgan boat is nearly identical to the Carrowneden boat from Ballyhaunis in County Mayo and the 4,500-year-old Annaghkeen logboat which was recently revealed in Lough Corrib. UAU archaeologist Karl Brady said, “The fact that all three boats were located within 30 miles of each other would suggest that they were made by the one builder, or that there was a vogue for early Bronze Age boats of this type.”

The oldest known boat in the world appears to be the Pesse canoe built between 8040 and 7510 BC. It was found in a Netherlands peat bog during construction of a motorway.

Addergoole Bog dugout canoe arriving at National Museum Ireland Dublin
Dugout canoe arriving at National Museum in Dublin

Bog Bodies

I’d wager that most people visit the National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology to see the “accidental mummies” of Baronstown West Man (200-400 AD), Clonycavan Man (392-201 BC), Oldcroghan Man (362-175 BC), and Gallagh Man (400-200 BC). All were discovered excellently preserved in peat bogs when farmers or laborers disturbed the land in modern times.

Oldcroghan Man’s hands are in particularly stunning condition. No matter how long you look at them, the idea of being able to study the details of someone’s fingernails who lived so long ago still feels impossible. Another thing that stands out about Oldcroghan Man is that his nipples had been cut. The museum explains that this is highly significant because “sucking a king’s nipples was an ancient Irish form of submission and the mutilation perpetrated on Oldcroghan Man would have rendered him ineligible for kingship. Carefully manicured fingernails and an absence of wear to his hands indicating that he did not engage in heavy manual work, demonstrate that Oldcroghan Man was a person of high social rank.” 

The Clonycavan Man still retains hair on his chin and upper lip. He models a unique hairstyle which he groomed with an imported resin from France or Spain, a sign that he may have been from a privileged class in his society too.

Perhaps these men were sacrificed as an offering to the gods in exchange for fertility and prosperity, or perhaps they were attacked for challenging a sitting king. Whatever their crime, posting pictures of them here feels disrespectful, or at least grounds for a curse.

Clothes Rescued from Bogs

Less morbid artifacts from throughout history have also bubbled up from Ireland’s bogs. What can they tell us about lifestyle and fashion developments over the centuries?

The National Museum of Ireland exhibits a wool felt hat from the late medieval period that was unearthed from a bog in Donegal, a late 16th/early 17th century woman’s dress found in a bog in County Offaly, plus a cloak, trousers, a tunic/jacket and various other styles of hats, all stained brown by the peat. The design of the dress in particular shows an awareness the Irish would have had of contemporary clothing styles in other European countries.

Having hiked in Wicklow in windy conditions, it’s easy to imagine how someone could lose their hat to the bogs!

Fadden More Psalter

A book of psalms from approximately 800 AD was stumbled upon in the Fadden More bog in Tipperary partially preserved enough that we can still read the individual letters and words on some of its pages. It contains 60 sheets of vellum, 150 psalms, and was protected in a leather covering. The leather’s papyrus lining suggests Ireland would have had contact with the Mediterranean region during this time.

Over the course of years, archaeologists carefully and painstakingly dried and separated the fragile pages in a way that would conserve this precious piece of history. It’s quite the privilege that museum patrons can now see it for free.

Photographs of the Fadden More Psalter are not allowed and because of the very delicate condition of the surviving pages, the exhibit room is dimly lit.

The Shrine of the Cathach

The Shrine of the Cathach

Speaking of books, this reliquary from 1062-1094 AD was designed to hold a 6th or 7th century manuscript known as the Cathach, a book of psalms believed to have been written by St. Columba (Colmcille) himself.

St. Columba was an Irish abbot and missionary who lived circa 521-597 AD, one of the three patron saints of Ireland (alongside Saint Patrick and Saint Brigid) and one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland. He’s known for spreading Christianity in western Scotland among the Picts and Gaels of Dál Riata.

The shrine, or metal-plated decorative box, was kept by the O’Donnell clan for generations and thought to bring luck and protection in battle. Two other relics associated with Colmcille are on display at the National Museum, including a hand-bell and what remains of his crosier (a staff). The Shrine of the Miosach is also on view in the same room.

Gold Ribbon Torcs

The “Ór – Ireland’s Gold” exhibition at the National Museum features astounding hoards of gold jewelry that remind me of a pirate’s treasure chest, or the type of hidden riches that conquistadors hoped to find in the Americas. The Spanish should have searched for the Seven Cities of Cibola in Ireland!

The museum’s interpretative signs explain that the Iron Age produced fewer golden relics than the Bronze Age, but those that were produced in the Iron Age required proficient skill. Ribbon “torcs” were the most common pieces of this period and are found only in Ireland and Scotland. To create a ribbon torc, metal strips were beaten flat and then stretched and twisted to create a delicate spiral shape.

Something about this shape speaks to me for no articulable reason; maybe humankind is just obsessed with spirals and infinite loops. When I visited the Newgrange and Knowth passage tombs, the guide said something similar about spiral-shaped petroglyphs routinely carved into rocks by different civilizations across time and space. “Scholars come up with all kinds of explanations about what they could represent – the sun? – but maybe people just really like spirals.”

The Mooghaun hoard from 1000-500 BC includes simpler bracelets and gold collars, but huge numbers of them. Other golden ornament designs in Ireland were inspired by those from southern France or were imported from the Roman world. 

I was excited by the ear spools from County Wexford dated to 1000-500 BC because I have seen similar jewelry at the Museum of Native American History in Arkansas; apparently ear spools were worn in many cultures.

One legend I heard about the semi-mythical Tuatha Dé Danann, a race of early Irish ancestors that oral tradition has slowly turned into fairies over the centuries, is that they hid gold treasures under “fairy trees” (Hawthorn trees), which, alongside “fairy mounds” (burial mounds), were considered portals to their world. Any attempts to disturb these places would incur their wrath. Now we know that people did actually bury gold hoards. Were the Bronze Age people the real Tuatha Dé Danann? Or did Bronze Age people stumble upon Neolithic burial mounds and create stories about who built them in order to discourage people from looking for their own gold?

Broighter Hoard Boat

Broighter hoard gold boat National Museum Ireland Archaeology

It’s a miracle that this 1st century BC gold model boat and its brittle oars managed to survive to modern day. Once buried amongst other hidden treasures as part of the Broighter Hoard in County Derry, the museum calls it “the most exceptional find of Iron Age metalwork in Ireland.”

The boat is suspected to be an offering to the sea god Manannán mac Lir because of its significant location on the shores of Lough Foyle. There is a horse motif inscribed on a collar in the same hoard, and horses were often associated with Manannán mac Lir.

Looking into the folklore surrounding Manannán mac Lir is a fun way to dive into Irish mythology. Apparently he was the son of “Lir,” which means “sea,” and rode a horse that could walk on water. 

Relics from Glendalough

Having just hiked and camped the Wicklow Way over six days, I was excited to see an entire wing at the National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology dedicated to the monastic site at Glendalough, which the trail passes through. At Glendalough I explored around the Roundtower, St. Kevin’s Church, and the Cathedral, but artifacts recovered near these buildings are at the museum in Dublin.

The National Museum features a 16th or 17th century silver pendant paternoster cross from Glendalough, which would have been attached to a rosary. There is also a 15th or 16th century gilt wooden statue of a saint which was located near the upper lake, and a 7th or 8th century stone lamp.

One of my personal favorites is a tiny 11th or 12th century jet cross found in Sevenchurches or Camaderry. It was imported from Whitby in North Yorkshire and is only one of three known in Ireland. How did archaeologists spot this minuscule thing?

Even if you’re not hiking the Wicklow Way, it’s easy to visit Glendalough on a guided day trip from Dublin. If you prefer to go it alone, you can take St. Kevin’s Bus Services to Glendalough. They accept most credit/debit cards, cash, and the Leap Card (but not Leap Visitor) as payment.

Neolithic Jadeite Axeheads

Neolithic Jadeite axeheads National Museum Ireland Archaeology

These colorful axeheads from 4000-3500 BC are flawlessly polished and elegantly shaped. They would be gorgeous no matter their provenance, but learning their age and context encourages reevaluation of previously held notions regarding how sophisticated Neolithic people were. The stone used to create these axeheads was quarried from the Italian Alps! A lot of care and effort was put into importing the stone and crafting the tools, which the museum surmises must have been used for ceremonial purposes considering their lack of wear.

Mesolithic Fish Traps

Mesolithic fish traps National Museum Ireland Archaeology

Amongst the prehistoric stone tools and arrowheads at the National Museum of Ireland is a peculiar set of rocks striated with fossilized weave-like patterns. These cone-shaped fish traps were found in County Meath and staggeringly date to 5300-4730 BC! Archaeologists were able to judge that hunter gatherers used locally-sourced alder, birch and rosaceae to create the traps.

Near the fish traps, keep an eye out for another interesting tool that caught my eye – a Neolithic bann flake from County Antrim circa 4300-3900 BC that’s still encompassed in its moss haft. The first humans to arrive in Ireland settled on the banks of the River Bann.

Craftwork from Neolithic Passage Tombs

I am kicking myself after visiting the passage tombs at Newgrange and Knowth because one of the most important finds I read about there is a 5,000-year-old flint mace-head which is, you guessed it, on display at the National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology which I visited the day before. Not understanding its significance at the time, I was much more focused on some cool stone balls that were recovered from the Loughcrew passage tombs instead. They are so perfectly spherical! The mace-head is relegated to the sad unfocused corner of my photo.

This isn’t to say that the stone balls aren’t important too. They may illustrate a link “between the elites of Ireland and Orkney around 3000 BC,” considering similar balls have been found in the Scottish islands.

Newgrange and Knowth are UNESCO World Heritage Sites dating to ~3200 BC. If you don’t immediately recognize them by name, you are probably familiar with their lore. Anyone who’s turned on the History Channel, Travel Channel, or National Geographic has almost certainly stumbled upon an explanation of how a stream of sunlight illuminates the passages of Newgrange every year on the winter solstice.

I took the train and then a bus from Dublin to Newgrange and signed up in advance for an €18 guided tour of both Newgrange and Knowth, which was absolutely brilliant (you could book direct or join a third party guided day tour from Dublin which will include transportation; either way you need to have advance tickets and cannot do a self-guided tour of these sites). Having been there, my appreciation for the grave goods at the Archaeology Museum is now even more heightened. I recommend visiting Newgrange and/or the Hill of Tara first if you can, and then the Archaeology Museum another day.

Urns and Grave Goods from the Hill of Tara

The Hill of Tara is one of the most important sacred and archaeological sites in Ireland. It was once the seat of the High Kings of Ireland and comprises several burial mounds and a Neolithic passage tomb called the “Mound of Hostages.”

Archaeologists were able to recover human remains and grave goods from the Hill of Tara and many of the most impressive finds are now on display at the National Museum. I lost track of the number of urns and bone tools visitors get to inspect, however the necklace from Burial 30 sticks out in my mind. Burial 30 within the Mound of Hostages contained the crouched skeleton of a young man who wore a rare necklace of precious amber, bronze, jet and faience beads dated to 1739-1533 BC. This boy must have been of great importance to his community.

You can visit the Hill of Tara today for free. You could optionally book a guided tour from Dublin that includes transportation and multiple heritage sites in one day, or sign up for a guided Hill of Tara tour onsite at the visitor center. Some kind of tour is recommended so you understand the significance of the earthworks, which are not quite as obvious as the tombs at Newgrange, Knowth, and Dowth.

Tara Brooch

Tara Brooch National Museum Ireland

The National Museum of Ireland has multiple elaborate brooches, but I found myself naturally drawn to one in particular. I must have good taste, because after making my way around the room and reading more of the information signs, I learned my favorite brooch of the lot is called the Tara Brooch and is “considered to represent the pinnacle of early medieval Irish metalworkers’ achievement” as well as being “the finest known example of these highly decorated brooches” from the early medieval period in Ireland. 

The 8th century silver Tara Brooch was actually discovered at Bettystown in County Meath, not at the Hill of Tara. It’s decorated with glass, enamel, gold filigree, and amber to depict animal, human, and abstract motifs, some of which are so small and fine that it takes a keen eye or microscope to catch all of the details.

Mysterious Missing Bead

Roscommon hoard gold beads National Museum Ireland Archaeology

A Roscommon hoard from the late Bronze Age contained eleven gold hollow beads of varying sizes, though every one of them is more akin to an orange in size than a typical bead. They must have looked quite extravagant. The holes at the ends suggest they would have been strung on a necklace. Nine of them are together at the National Museum of Ireland, one is in collections at the British Museum, but the eleventh is mysteriously missing.

The museum does know that at different times, some of the beads were in the hands of collectors such as Dean Dawson, Major Sirr, Colonel Clements, and the Duke of Northumberland.

This is a job for an antiquities sleuth, or perhaps Indiana Jones or Robert Langdon – where is the eleventh bead? Can they ever be reunited? Are we all jinxed until the final bead returns to Ireland?

As long as we’re on the subject of necklaces, keep an eye out for shell necklaces from 3600-3400 BC which were excavated from Phoenix Park in Dublin and multiple amber necklaces, including one from County Cavan dated circa 900-500 BC. Ancient jewelry always strikes me as odd in museums because it can still look quite modern. I could see the amber necklaces being sold in plenty of stores today.

9th Century Viking Burial 

Viking burial 9th century National Museum Ireland Archaeology
I don’t feel as bad posting a picture of our Viking; maybe because he has no facial features like some of the bog bodies

There is an entire wing at the National Museum dedicated to Viking-age Ireland, though I tend to agree with the Archeodeath blog that the interpretation sometimes lacks context. There are tons of rusted swords and daggers, for instance, but I wasn’t sure how to differentiate between them or what makes any individual piece significant. As a result I didn’t have many standout favorites from this wing, except for an incredibly in-tact skeleton exhumed from a 9th century Viking grave in Dublin. 

This tall skeleton was accompanied by a sword broken in three places, supposedly a ritual seen at other nearby burials. The practice of heating and then bending or twisting a sword, or breaking one in pieces, before burying it with the dead is called “the ritual killing of swords.” This practice certainly would have been common throughout Scandinavia during the Viking age. 

Pilgrim Badges

Pilgrim badges from camino National Museum Ireland Archaeology

Pilgrims who walked routes such as the Camino de Santiago in Spain returned to Ireland with badges to represent their travels. As a hiker whose main purpose in traveling the world is to walk or “thru-hike” such routes myself, I am always particularly charmed and intrigued by evidence of those who came before me. I’ve seen similar souvenirs at the Lewes Castle Museum in England and the Cloisters in New York City.

On display at the National Museum of Ireland is a 14th century pilgrim badge from Our Lady of Rocamadour in France discovered at Lough Atrain in County Cavan, a 14th or 15th century Camino de Santiago badge from Ardfert Cathedral in County Kerry, and a Camino de Santiago scallop shell and bone pendant from a grave in the Franciscan friary in Mullingar, County Westmeath.

🏨 Search budget hostels in Dublin or standard hotel options in Dublin.
🚌 Book a guided day trip from Dublin to Newgrange, Hill of Tara, Giant’s Causeway, Cliffs of Moher, Glendalough, etc! There’s even a Game of Thrones filming locations tour.
✈️ Coming to Ireland from further afield? Use an Airalo eSIM for affordable international cell data and don’t forget to protect your investment with travel insurance.


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