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Golden Gifts to a Sea God: The Broighter Hoard and Its Mysterious Golden Boat

Golden Gifts to a Sea God: The Broighter Hoard and Its Mysterious Golden Boat


The golden treasure called the Broighter Hoard was found at the site of Lough Foyle, near Limavady in Northern Ireland at the end of the 19th century. Its discoverers couldn't believe their eyes when they made the magnificent find. The treasure is now exhibited at the National Museum of Ireland, and the Ulster Museum in Belfast has replicas. The gorgeous artifacts continue to be symbols of ancient Irish culture.

A Magnificent Discovery

The wonderful treasure had been underground for many centuries. But one day in February 1896, Thomas Nicholl and James Morrow were double ploughing (one plough following the other to increase the depth) when they discovered the hoard. The golden treasure was found 35 cm (14 inches) underground.

Map showing the location of Lough Foyle.

Map showing the location of Lough Foyle. (Public Domain)

They took the treasures to their farm and Thomas Nicholl’s future wife, Maggie, washed them. At that moment, they still didn't know that they were holding a golden treasure hoard in their hands. When they finally realized the treasure’s value, all the most precious pieces had already been taken by the man who had hired them. J. L. Gibson sold the treasure to the local antiquarian, while another part of the hoard was sold by Morrow’s sister to a jeweler.

Eventually, a portion of the hoard was sold to the British Museum for 600 pounds. The artifacts were dated back to the 1st century BC. They caused fights between museums and institutions for a few decades.

The Shining Iron Age Boat

The golden hoard included several impressive artifacts. The most surprising of them all is a golden boat which weighs 85 g (3 ounces). The ship is 18.4 cm (7.25 inches) long and 7.6 cm (3 inches) wide, it has two rows of nine oars, benches, a paddle rudder for steering, and rowlocks (oar locks). Although researchers didn't give this artifact much attention at first, with time they found out the boat is the key to the hoard’s mystery. It seems that the hoard was a votive deposit to a deity, probably the god Manannan mac Lir - the famous master of the sea.

The smaller parts that made up the model of the boat. 1. Boat hook 2. Mast yard 3. Steering oar 4. Small grappling iron 5. Forked implements 6. Square ended oars 7. Oars.

The smaller parts that made up the model of the boat. 1. Boat hook 2. Mast yard 3. Steering oar 4. Small grappling iron 5. Forked implements 6. Square ended oars 7. Oars. (Public Domain)

A bowl is another interesting item in the hoard. The artifact is rare because it is a model of a cauldron and made of one piece of gold. The cauldron’s use is uncertain, but it could be another part of the votive hoard - traditionally cauldrons were important elements of pre-Christian rituals. The one discovered in the Broighter hoard is 5.1cm (2 inches) deep and 8.9 cm (3.5 inches) in diameter.

Moreover, two torcs made of golden bars were unearthed in the same place, as well as two chain necklaces made with techniques characteristic to the Romans or the Middle East (but not the Celts.) The technique is known as loop-in-loop. All the goods suggest the reason behind the hoard, but an impressive golden neck ring was the last part of the puzzle.

The boat, bowl, and part of a torc.

The boat, bowl, and part of a torc. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

An Incredible Torc Provides the Answer

A large tubular neck ornament has a special place among the golden treasures. The torc is 19 cm (7.5 inches) in diameter. It is decorated with incised and raised ornaments and has buffer terminals (flat ends).  Horse and bird motifs appear on the artifact, which is unique due to its traditional association. It is believed that neck rings like this are related to Celtic deities and kings. This item answers the question of why someone had buried the treasure. It also suggests that the hoard could have been associated with the sea god Manannan mac Lir.

Manannán mac Lir sculpture by John Sutton at Gortmore.

Manannán mac Lir sculpture by John Sutton at Gortmore. (CC BY-SA 2.5)

As Richard Warner explained:

“Once we accept the probability that the hoard was a ritual offering to a sea-god much comes into focus. For a start, the presence within the hoard of the model boat makes sense, as do the non-Irish elements (the loop-in-loop necklaces). We might suppose that merchants were foremost among those whom appeasement of a sea-god was necessary. In early Irish mythology, the chief god associated with the sea was Manannan mac Lir -Manannan 'son of the sea' – an Irish (not necessarily Celtic) equivalent of the Roman Neptune and the Greek Poseidon. In 1981 I thought I was the first to suggest that he was the god for whom the hoard was intended. In fact, this god was first posited by a certain L. Horton-Smith, a 'friend of the court' in 1903 in reply to Farwell's query as to whether there was such a thing as on Irish sea-god. Manannan was the chief pagan Irish god of the underworld, of water, and of corps, and is supposed to have possessed a huge cauldron – which brings the model cauldron in the hoard to mind. He was thought by the later Christian Irish monks who wrote down old pagan tales to have been an ancient merchant who lived on the Isle of Man.”

The Broighter hoard still holds some mystery, but researchers believe that they are ready to answer most questions about it. However, it is necessary to remember that some of the artifacts from the hoard have been lost.

The torc and bowl.

The torc and bowl. (Public Domain)

Ireland’s Golden Treasure

Now, the hoard is recognized as a national treasure. Its golden pieces are some of the most important symbols of Ireland’s ancient history. The tale of the god from the Isle of Man and the treasure which nobody expected to find is one of the most fantastic stories in Irish archaeology.

Top image: The golden boat from the Broighter hoard. Photo Source: CC BY-SA 3.0

By Natalia Klimczak



So is it the bowl or the boat ? that would be filled with lake water, then poured down directly between the torc filling the other vessel. Thus blessing the water to be drank after, or then poured back into the lake for a safe travel.?
Is there by chance, another artifact missing ?


Natalia Klimczak is an historian, journalist and writer and is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at the Faculty of Languages, University of Gdansk. Natalia does research in Narratology, Historiography, History of Galicia (Spain) and Ancient History of Egypt, Rome and Celts. She... Read More

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