Thesis abstract ‘Time, Symbolism and Archaeology in the Tain Bo Cuailnge’

13th November 2013

Neil Davies

BA(Hons), Department of Archaeology, Flinders University, Adelaide, 1998

This thesis uses as its source material the ‘Tain Bo Cuiailnge’, the epic tale that recounts the story of the Ulster hero Cu Chulainn in his role as The Hound of Ulster. The Tain is part of the considerable volume of surviving manuscripts originating in Ireland, by far the largest corpus surviving from early historic Europe outside Classical Greece. The tales, probably written down in the early ninth century, are almost uniquely free of unduly heavy editing or ‘Christianising’ by monastic scribes. The Tain Bo Cuiailnge is reputed to reflect and describe the later pre-Christian Iron Age in Ireland; the time period being from the earliest identifiable La Tene influences of around 200 BC, until the establishment of Christianity by the fifth century AD.

The thesis proposes a wider definition of archaeology which takes into account theoretical approaches of mythology and histories, and treats chronologies and traditional literature as potential archaeological sources. These sources are integrated with material cultural remains to give a more complete impression of Irish Iron Age culture in particular, and protohistoric societies in general. The evaluation of this ‘triad’ involves the critical examination of certain assumptions that dictate and control accepted definitions of archaeology, directed almost exclusively as they are towards material remains, treating other communications from the past as ephemera. Central to the argument are reconciling modern and ancient viewpoints of myth, history and perceptions of the nature and measurement of time.

The traditional ‘Celtic’ broad sword together with the chariot and its attendant heroic warrior are very sparse in the Irish archaeological record. They are, however, items that figure heavily in traditional literature both as both as mundane weapons and as cultural symbols. Therefore, because such items are so apposite to my thesis they form the main subject of my research, the thesis attempts to explain why this situation exists and proposes possible solutions. The purpose of symbols or themes in archaeology, history and archaeology, particularly as they are pertinent to Irish tradition, are examined and evaluated.

The paper draws two main conclusions. First that without taking into account all available information from and about such periods it is impossible to fully understand the culture. Second, the evidence demonstrates that factors from the remote past continue to have power in the Ireland of the twentieth century. This Persistence of Tradition was seen, for example in the ideology of Patrick Pierce during the Easter Rising of 1916. In addition, several instances from a wider context are quoted. These demonstrate how ideologies and modern material culture have retained, or allude to, symbology from mythological themes. The evidence also suggests that the presentation of history, and the way the past is generally understood tends to follow mythical ‘storyboards’.

Davies, N.
Thesis abstract 'Time, Symbolism and Archaeology in the Tain Bo Cuailnge'
Thesis Abstracts
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