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History

Couple looking at the Troubles Gallery

At the Ulster Museum, the Archaeology collections provide evidence of people and events in Ireland from the Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Medieval and post-Medieval periods. Recent acquisitions include spectacular Bronze Age gold jewellery, a Bronze sword and axe and rare Roman gold rings from the Murlough hoard in Co. Down.

The Modern History collection covers the period from 1500 to the present day. It is a multi-disciplinary collection that includes objects relating to the political, social and economic history of Ireland. The history of Northern Ireland from the late 1960s to the present day has been dominated by the civil and political conflict known as ‘the Troubles.’ The collection covers themes of politics and conflict, and the impact of both on everyday life, people and communities

The World Cultures collection is closely linked to the history of the Ulster Museum and most of the items were acquired in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The European bias and power imbalances that characterised this collecting leave a complex and sensitive legacy to address today.

Permanent history galleries

The history of Northern Ireland from the late 1960s to the present day has been dominated by the civil and political conflict known as ‘the Troubles.’ The events that took place here after 1968 have impacted not just the people of Northern Ireland, but people across the world. Our collection covers themes of politics and conflict, and the impact of both on everyday life, people and communities.

The Troubles and Beyond exhibition is not exclusively focussed on the conflict, but relates to contemporary history and therefore includes objects that represent our wider social, cultural and economic history. The collection is a dynamic one and it continues to be developed and refined. Recently acquired items include George Best’s Northern Ireland football jersey, a puppet of Gerry Adams from the TV series Spitting Image, material relating to the life and career of Belfast-born actor James Ellis and a collection of Pride t-shirts dating from 1991 when the first march was held in Belfast.

We are constantly working to build and develop our contemporary collection to show social change, working life, arts and culture, and the ever changing environment around us. The Troubles did not take place in a vacuum. The reality of life is reflected in our personal memories and the photographs and mementoes that underpin our family history.

Voices of 68 is an exhibition examining Northern Ireland’s 1968. As well as focusing on the local circumstances, the videos that make up this collection also seek to connect the Northern Irish events to what was happening elsewhere in what was an extremely interesting period of transnational revolt and rebellion.

The story of the famous Spanish Armada of 1588, which planned to invade England, has always fired people’s imagination. This is reflected in the Armada gallery with its many stunning treasures made of gold and silver. These and other spectacular items were recovered from two Spanish wrecks that sank off the north Irish coast.

Discovered in 1967 by Robert Stenuit, the ‘Girona’ was a floating treasure chest of wealth. Designed to carry 500 men, there were 1,300 on board when the ship went down in stormy seas near the Giant’s Causeway. People, their possessions, fine clothes and lofty ambitions all sank to the ocean floor. Only five people survived.

The piles of gold and silver coins are only a small sample from the hundreds recovered. Fashionable gold rings includes one bearing a loving message which translates as ‘I have nothing more to give thee’.

Look out for the small salamander or lizard made of gold and rubies. Worn as a lucky charm it failed to protect those on board.

In contrast to the Girona, the ‘Trinadad Valencera’ had more organic objects preserved from the wreck, including rather surprisingly a pine cone whose seeds were eaten. A significant amount of material from the Trinadad is on loan to the Tower Museum in Derry/Londonderry.

On the far side of the gallery material from both ships is more of a military nature. The canons and cannon balls are a reminder of the main purpose of the Spanish Armada. It was a huge naval force which aimed to invade England. Many ships and sailors never returned home.

The Saints and Scholars gallery explores Irish history from 400 AD to 1600 AD. This marks the start of Christian teachings by Saint Patrick. Written records and religious books appear for the first time.

At the entrance to the gallery, in its own case, is small decorated metal container – the ‘Clonmore shrine’. It was used to hold sacred body parts of Christian saints.

Church ceremonies created a need for these and other specialised objects like chalices, abbots croziers (or staffs), bells and decorated book covers.

Other fine metal objects include jewellery in the form of brooches. These are often made of silver. This increasing wealth attracted Vikings raids. Weapons include those from a Viking burial at Larne. Examples of Viking plunder take the form of metal objects broken into small pieces. Many were stolen from Church sites.

After the Vikings came the Normans and their stone castles. Armed knights had swords, crossbows and helmets, such the rare example from Lough Henny in County Down. Increasing trade networks made coins more plentiful.

Towards the end of the gallery, a rough stone chair on display was used like a throne. It belonged to the family of the O’Neill’s. These chairs became a symbol of power for Irish chieftains during wars with English lords. By 1600 this traditional ‘Gaelic’ way of life was over.

Based upon evidence from excavations at Mount Sandel, near Coleraine, a Mesolithic larder of hunted and gathered foods has been recreated. Simple flint tools from the site are also on display.

During the following Neolithic period, farmers changed the landscape by cutting down trees with stone axes. Those from the Malone Road Hoard are a ‘must see’. They are too large and heavy to chop down trees which suggests their value lay in how they looked. Have a look at the clay pots, a new skill which Neolithic people mastered.

Moving on in time, metal objects appear. These mark the beginning of the Bronze Age. There are four rare gold ‘lunulae’ (neck-rings,) shaped like the crescent moon and a Bronze Age burial which includes a real skeleton!

As the Bronze Age developed, more spectacular items were made. A small case contains two treasures. One is a tiny gold locket (or ‘bulla’) worn around the neck. The other is a ‘torc’ or neck-ring, coiled like a spring. A video explains how these were made and worn.

Around this part of the gallery, many objects reflect a more warlike society. There are swords, spears and a beautiful bronze shield. More surprisingly are two curved musical horns displayed high-up on the back wall of a large case near the entrance to Takabuti, the Egyptian mummy.

The Early Peoples gallery ends with the Iron Age or Celts. There are not as many objects from this time. The small circular ‘Bann disc’, is decorated in an art style typical of this period. It is in a case near the Carrick ‘tankard’ – a wooden cup decorated with a band of metal.

Glaciers and landscapes

Ireland has been covered by ice sheets many times in the past 2 million years. Many features of its landscape were moulded or modified by glaciers. ‘Drumlin’ and ‘esker’ are Irish names used for glacial features all around the world. Visit the Ice Age gallery to discover what they are and where you can see them.

Ice Age beasts

At the edges of the ice sheets, and during warmer periods, unfamiliar animals roamed the landscape. The bones and teeth of mammoths and musk ox, brown bears and wild boars, and even hyaenas and hippos, have all been found at sites across Ireland and are displayed in the gallery. When you visit make sure you don’t miss the huge mammoth tusk by the stairs down from the Deep Time gallery, and the awesome antlers of the giant deer.