350-Year-Old Plates and Teacups From China Uncovered at Irish Castle

During a survey of an Irish castle, archaeologist Antoine Giacometti stuck his hand into a wet washing pit beneath the floor. He didn't expect to find anything in the pit, much less a golden piece of jewelry dating back to the late 1600s.

"I put my hand down into this wet, mucky thing, and there was a gold piece of jewelry with a possible gemstone in it," said Giacometti, the archaeological director of Archaeology Plan, an organization that preserves Ireland's archaeological heritage. "Then we realized that [the pit] was full of choc-a-bloc."

The pit at Rathfarnham Castle contained artifacts dating from 1650 to 1700, including pointy high-heeled women's shoes, porcelain plates and teacups imported from China. A Cromwellian armor breastplate and a jar of red material likely used to redden women's lips and cheeks were also found. [See photos of the treasures found at Rathfarnham Castle]

Image: Blue-and-white plate from China found in Irish castle
The archaeologists surveying an old Irish castle found several porcelain plates and teacups imported from China in the washing pit, including this blue-and-white plate. The plate, though broken, has visible seventeenth-century Qim Xi dynasty markings on the back. Alva Mac Gowan | Archaeology Plan

Dozens of families have lived in Rathfarnham Castle since its construction in 1583 in south Dublin. The waterlogged washing pit was likely sealed in about 1700, preserving the bric-a-brac, which even include tea leaves, Giacometti told Live Science.

Perhaps the castle's residents hid the items there during a raid, or maybe the knickknacks were placed there for washing and were never reclaimed. Or, a person could have dumped them into the pit, for lack of a better storage place, Giacometti said.

At any rate, the artifacts likely belonged to the household of Lord Adam Loftus (1625-1691), a descendant of the original Archbishop Adam Loftus, who built the castle, Giacometti said. The lord worked with King Charles II and King William of Orange, and oversaw Irish state finances during a time of great tension between Catholic Ireland and Protestant England.

Loftus lived at the castle with his wife Lucy, son James, who died young, and daughter Lucia, who married Philip Wharton the infamous "Rake of Rathfarnham." The rake, a notorious rascal, scammed his way into prestigious positions, married multiple times (typically with bad results), invested heavily in economic bubbles and died nearly penniless, Giacometti said.

— Laura Geggel, Live Science

This is a condensed version of a report from Live Science. Read the full report. Follow Laura Geggel on Twitter @LauraGeggel and Google+. Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+.