An Ancient Remedy: The Intersection of Archaeology, Folklore, and Health in Ireland
Sunday, March 29, 2020 at 3pm
Archaeological Institute of America – Forsyth Lecture
Jennifer Shaffer Foster
The reuse of archaeological sites by contemporary populations, both today and in the past, is a well-known phenomenon. In Ireland, domestic and monumental sites were reused over the millennia and today many sites that have an archaeological component, such as church grounds, are also important places of daily activity. In this lecture, I’m going to specifically address the reuse or reconceptualization of “ancient” sites as places for healing and the creation of identity—for both Irish people and the tourists who seek them out. In this context, “ancient” refers to both recognized and studied archaeological and historical sites, and places which may or may not have a long history, but are popularly assumed to have been established or used sometime in the distant past. Among these ancient places are holy wells and rag trees. In the historical era and, in some cases, up until the present, Irish people visited holy wells and accompanying rag trees in search of relief from various ailments. While visiting the well, they would dip a rag in the water and then rub it on an afflicted area of their body. Well visitors would then tie the rag to the branches of a neighboring tree in the belief that as the rag disappeared they would be healed. This practice still exists at many holy wells throughout Ireland, but rag trees have also appeared in other places, both archaeological sites and areas with a perceived “ancient” connection. Have rag trees appeared because people are genuinely seeking out healing places?
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