Conservation or Destruction? State Management of Skellig Michael

The methodology used by the OPW to conserve the monastic hermitage on Skellig Michael has been the source of controversy in archaeological circles for more than a decade. But the truth contained in a UNESCO study released last month has been clouded in spin. By Siobhán Tanner


Environment Minister John Gormley has welcomed the “very positive” findings of a Unesco investigation into the conservation work and state management of world heritage site, Skellig Michael.

Minster of State with the Office of Public Works Martin Mansersagh said that “despite criticism by a small number of concerned parties” the report was “a welcome validation and endorsement of the work being carried out by my office”.

But, an independent archaeologist Michael Gibbons (pictured right), whose claims prompted the investigation said the same report was a “damning indictment” of the OPW and called for a “root and branch reform” of its conservation practices.

 “It proves everything I've been saying, that they are using 19th century work practices, rebuilding rather than restoring; this wouldn't have happened in any other country in the world.”

Michael Gibbons provided evidence to the Unesco mission to support claims that an altar on the South Peak oratory had been destroyed and five tonnes of excavated spoil had been dumped into the sea without environmental archaeology done.

“The logical conclusion of this report would be to appoint a new management team and launch a full academic study into the work done by the OPW,” he said.
But the Department of Environment, which is responsible for management policy, dismissed the suggestion. In response, a spokesperson cited the report's conclusion that the conservation works were “justifiable”.

The UNESCO report found that while the conservation works had dramatically altered the appearance of the remains on the South Peak of the island they were justifiable and the outstanding universal value of the site remained intact, “so long as the works are reported in a full academic publication”.
Heritage officer with an Taisce, Ian Lumley said the report highlighted a management failure in the environment department.

“We have similar issues in the management of the Boyne Valley. The government are failing to address the fact that the report was severely critical of its decision-making process and lack of external engagement,” he said

He called for a full peer review of the management of heritage sites.

Meanwhile, a senior archaeologist with the Department of Environment Ann Lynch issued a statement criticising the Irish Times “with its prominent and misleading headline [it] selectively quotes parts of sentences from the report, which are taken out of context and formulated to infer criticism”.

Compiled by an UNESCO inspector, who visited the island last November, the report was released at an annual world heritage committee meeting in Quebec, Canada last month. The following are the main points:

The OPW failed to engage with outside experts before embarking on the work. It “should have initiated debate amongst archaeologists and other stakeholders”. In future before any further excavations it must consult with an Advisory Committee to be appointed of relevant representatives. “Ideally these works should be set in the context of a formal Archaeological Research Agenda and Strategy which would outline research themes, methods of artefact and environmental recovery, and other aspects of best Irish archaeological practice,” the report stated.

There was a lack of proper recording methods and the lack of environmental archaeology: “The mission noted that site sieving and metal detector scanning of spoil, which might have been appropriate in view of the paucity of finds, had not been employed.”

The draft management plan, “reflects its multiple authorship, might have benefited from a single authorship; it might also have drawn upon the experience of management plan exemplars from other countries”.

Again the report noted a lack of engagement with outside experts: “An in-house interdepartmental team with no stakeholder representation began work on this plan in 2006.”

Academic publication on the excavations on the site has been very limited: “Up the present time only short descriptive interim publications and annual summary articles have been published.

 "It is important that visitors and reserachers alike are fully aware of the pre-conservation state of the monuments and the reasons for change."
Publication of the excavations and a detailed account of the conservation works is essential at all levels.

While “the authorities recognised that a full publication at both a scholarly and popular level of archaeological investigations and the conservation works undertaken from 1978 to 2007 is essential, at the time of the mission there was no clear-costed programme for full academic publication”. The full resources need to be identified as soon as possible, the report said.

It urged the resolution of a dispute with the passenger boatman over the non-transferability of landing permits. It said the office should invite boatmen to annual minuted meetings to establish and make known the future criteria for the issue of permits.

The OPW should reconsider the view that a site manager is not needed for the island — currently presentation of the site relies almost entirely on the skills of seasonal tour guides. The manager would prepare an annual ‘Skellig Report' as suggested by Kerry Council to update on progress of the implementation of the management plan.

A detailed visitor study to vitally confirm the carrying capacity of the island should be undertaken and the lack of toilet facilities on the island needs to be addressed.
Coinciding with the release of the Unesco report, Minister John Gormley released the first management plan for the island off the coast of Kerry in response to earlier criticisms that one did not exist.

Announcing the plan he said: “The findings of the report are very positive and highlight the high standard of conservation works being undertaken by our experts in Ireland.”

A spokeswoman from the Institute of Archaeologists who admitted to “having members on both sides of this debate” said the issues raised in the report, which “wasn't negative per se” were addressed in the management plan.

“We would see it as drawing a line under the work that has gone before — it is a natural conclusion to the debate on the site and how the site should be managed,” the spokeswoman said.

However, without an admission that the report was indeed critical, it cannot represent a conclusion to the long-running debate.
The OPW are responsible for the management of an estimated 700 national monuments and do ongoing maintenance and conservation work at more than 100 sites every year.



Assessment of Conservation Works



The authentic, original structures on the South Peak have been conserved and reconstructed, and as a result they are dramatically different from how they appeared before work started. They now look more like conjectural reconstructions published after the original survey. Without a detailed explanation of the on-site decision-making process that led up to each individual intervention this change in appearance would indeed give cause for concern.

Because the rationale for the works and the actual process was largely discussed in-house, criticisms were inevitable. Since the start of the programme of works in 1978 conservation philosophy in other countries has moved towards a minimum intervention approach. Opportunities were also lost to take advantage of expertise outside the OPW, which could have reassured outside observers that best practice was being followed. This situation has been exacerbated by the lack of publication.

The new work is in its own way almost as remarkable as the original work. The process of conservation and reconstruction, including the controversy surrounding these activities, has now become a part of the history of the property. The monument as now reconstructed will become the popular vision of Skellig. For this reason it is essential that detail of the works should always be made explicit and the new work should be distinguishable from the old in all future publications. Until the works are published at an academic and a popular level the conservation works cannot be said to have been completed.