Some worrying news: the recent theft of a medieval stone font from the ruins of Rathmore Church, Co. Meath. The fifteenth century font (RMP ME024-017004-) is elaborately carved and takes the form of an octagonal shaft, c.2ft high, with figurative panels on each surface. It seems to have gone missing from Rathmore Church between April 16th and May 10th.
There has been a spate of thefts of medieval artefacts from Irish churches in recent times, but this marks an alarming new direction. Previous thefts involved metal artefacts/reliquaries and were presumably targeted for their metal content value; a rising trend across many parts of Europe given the ongoing economic stagnation and sharp increase in metal prices. The Rathmore theft is different. Being of stone, it does not carry an underlying ‘scrap’ value; and so presumably it has been deliberately targeted for other reasons (artistic, religious, financial).
Selling such an artefact openly would be impossible (and thanks to farseeing protective legislation, illegal). Even if removed abroad (again, illegal) the artefact’s providence should be easily identified by specialist dealers and auctioneer’s anywhere and would hopefully raise alarm bells. It doesn’t make a lot of financial sence then for someone, or some group, to invest the time and effort in stealing such an artefact on a opportunistic basis; which raises the prospect that it may have been ‘stolen to order’ as part of the black-market in antiquities.
Along with other recent cases, this latest theft is cause for concern for archaeology in modern Ireland. It raises issues of public access and security; but perhaps most of all, it illustrates an increasingly dangerous habit, by some, of viewing archaeological artefacts as objects that carry potential monetary gain. I’ve noticed a creeping tendency towards such a view in recent years in the process of giving tours and showing sites. Last year, whilst showing visitors around an ongoing excavation involving similar medieval ecclesiastical sculpture, the most common question (after ‘How old is that?’) was: ‘How much would it be worth, now?’
Take a listen to a national radio interview on the theft contained in the very first hyperlink of this post (‘worrying news’, very first sentence). At 58 seconds into the interview, the second question asked of Ned Kelly, Keeper of Antiquities at the National Museum (after he states its medieval context and its great loss in archaeological terms) is the following:
‘Is it valuable?’
Perhaps its no surprise. A regular feature of Irish newspapers these days are the barely disguised commercial advertisements for auction houses (masquerading as ‘articles’) detailing upcoming sales of literary or personal objects associated with nationally historical events or personages. Such promotions are designed to increase public and private interest (and the ultimate selling price, no doubt) by stressing the objects respective cultural and historical value.
Labelling nationally important objects in financial terms achieves the complete opposite. It diminishes true cultural value and appreciation by doing two things: presenting a ‘price tag’, as well as bringing the concept of personal/private ‘ownership’ (and private ‘sale’) into the equation. Of course, such objects are not legally considered in the same way as archaeological objects; but to the average member of the public such a distinction is perhaps not so readily apparent (especially given high-profile stories of ‘lucrative’ archaeological finds across the water). To anyone criminally inclined and under the impression that a quick buck is in the pipeline, it’s practically an invitation. Old is ‘gold’.
Archaeological artefacts in Ireland belong to the people of Ireland. The contents of the National Museum belongs to the nation. Equally, everything within designated national monuments in the Irish landscape belongs to us all. The theft of the Rathmore Font is not a theft from an isolated medieval church or the local rural community; it is a theft from everyone in the country, both present and future generations.
The targeting of such objects by criminals is one thing, but the potential for making things worse is quite another. Anyone who seeks to place a monetary figure on such artefacts (especially those in the media) are not only doing a disservice to archaeological and cultural heritage; they are also missing the entire point of same. Portraying such artefacts as having an economic value similar to those under an auctioneer’s hammer carries the potential of inadvertently encouraging similar thefts in the future.
The true worth of archaeological artefacts in this country (and the future protection of similar objects) lies in their retaining a pricelessness; legally, figuratively and metaphorically. Thats the sum total of their actual cultural value.
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Update: 13:45 (16/05/13): Great News. The word from National Monuments is that the Font has just been recovered.
Update: 19:00 (16/05/13): The Font is safe and has been inspected by OPW staff. A police investigation is continuing.
The photographs in this post are contained within the wonderful TRIARC – Edwin Rae Collection (Digital Image Collection) which can also be found at http://www.gothicpast.com (Edwin Rae Collection)