Ancient Golden Balls discovered at Tumna

1834
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In 1834 the Dublin Penny Journal reported the discovery of a collection of curious gold balls by a group of men ‘landing potatoes’, near the ruins of the ancient church of Tumna, Co. Roscommon.

Dating from the Late Bronze Age, these ancient artefacts had lain hidden in the ground for nearly 3,000 years. They were hollow inside and contained opposed holes to facilitate threading, suggesting that they had originally formed part of an elaborate necklace. The form in which sheet gold is used in the beads from Tumna is unique and cannot be paralleled in Britain (nor western or northern Europe). 

The Dublin Penny Journal article reported that George McDermott of 17 Sackville Street presented eleven balls of pure gold which had been found by two of his tenants while “finishing, or, what is  generally called landing potatoes, about twelve inches under the surface, near the ruins of an old chapel, and a fort, on the western banks of the Shannon, near Carrick.” The article also noted that they had been exhibited at the Royal Irish Academy. (No. 17 Sackville St was a Mail Coach Office and hotel in its day). George may have been the father of Patrick McDermott of Cloonskeeveen GV#1c]​

“It appears that about thirty or forty years ago Mr Edward Hayden, a farmer, who still lives close to Carrick-on-Shannon [aka Edward Hedian of Cloonskeeveen​​​ GV#3a] was digging on the opposite side of the hill to that on which the tomb or altar is situated, and he found close to the surface eight hollow balls, varying from two to three inches in diameter, and each having an aperture pierced through its shell. These balls, or beads, a Dublin goldsmith pronounced to be formed of gold, and they were purchased by him from Mr Hayden for the sum of £70. They were supposed by the finder to have been in some way connected with the ancient churches of the place, possibly as the necklace of a memorial statue, or carved figure of a saint. It is probable, however, that their date is older than the introduction of Christianity to Ireland. They were disposed of in Dublin, and in all likelihood at present preserved amongst the golden glories of ancient Erin, which so excite wonder and admiration of all visitors to the Museum of the Royal Irish Academy. I may add, in conclusion, that I am not without hope of  being able to identify at least a portion of this interesting’ find’, and of figuring the relics in the pages of our Journal.” [W. F. Wakeman (1887–8, 111)]

“... several are now much battered but when found it is said that they were smooth and perfect. It is apparent that a necklace formed of these eleven balls must have descended as low as the breast. Research does not aid our inquiries as to what class they were worn by, whether chieftain, Druid-priest, or king, but their ostensible use was that of a necklace of the largest and most gorgeous description”.  [Sir William Wilde (1862, 35) ].

In 1837, Lewis mentions several golden balls "the size of an egg" in his Topographical Dictionary entry for Tumna

Lewis also mentions Caldra Carrick-on-Shannon as the seat of G. McDermott Esq. In March 1834, the residence of Dr McDermott at Caldra was advertised to let [Roscommon & Leitrim Gazette - Saturday 04 April 1835].

On December 1st 1851, Mr Richard A. Gray (an engineer based in the Drainage Office, Kinnegad) communicated to Mr William T. Mulranny, Commissioner of Public Works, the discovery of a Late Bronze Age bronze sword “in the same townland with (sic) the hollow golden balls of which there are six in the Academy’s collection”.

The exact find place of the beads was never truly determined. It is believed to have been "in the churchyard at Toomna, one and a half miles from Carrick on Shannon".  In 1968, exhaustive enquiries were made by Mr Michael O’Callaghan of Boyle, Co. Roscommon, who reported the following traditional story:

“A group of men, a meitheal, were working with George McDermott, a small farmer, at Tumna, when one of them turned up a sod and found a number of gold objects. Mr McDermott gathered them up and in the evening gave a gold object to each man working with him. Sometime later an Exciseman from Carrick-on-Shannon visited a house in the area and found children playing with a gold object. He inquired where it came from and was told the story of the find at Tumna. He then arranged to have all the finds collected and when this was done he sent them to the Museum.”

 

Of the eleven beads, only ten are extant today, nine of which are now on display at National Museum of Ireland, Kildare Street, Dublin.