History was made yesterday in Downpatrick when the first piece of the town’s iconic 1,100-year-old High Cross was expertly hoisted from its current position in front of Down Cathedral to Down County Museum.
The intricately patterned Mourne granite cross, carved around AD 900 as a ‘prayer in stone’, is “of huge historical and cultural as well as religious significance”, according to Down County Museum curator Mike King.
Mr King said it is believed the cross stood in the early medieval monastery on the Hill of Down and, following the Reformation, was used as Downpatrick’s market cross where it suffered damage before being dismantled and its parts dispersed around the town.
Mr King said once the cross is safely positioned in Down County Museum “it will be cleaned, drawn and photographed by a team of experts”.
There, it will become the centrepiece of a new extension due to be built soon.
And next year an exact replica of the cross will be made by a Kilkeel stonemason using granite.
“Every day we seem to be finding out something new about the cross, what it depicts,” said Mr King.
“It is a scripture cross and shows a lot of biblical scenes right through from Adam and Eve to the crucifixion.
“We thought a lot of the cross has been worn away, but the more we look at it with fantastic new photographs and scans, we still see a lot of the detail. We think we can interpret a lot of the scenes now.
“The shaft will come to us next and then the two base stones.”
On Saturday young archaeologists from Downpatrick are set to carry out a dig, once the concrete is removed from the base of the cross, in a bid to find a time capsule which was buried by Celtic revivalist Francis Joseph Bigger in 1897.
“There should be a glass bottle with documents from the time,” said Mr King.
“We hope to find them intact, but they may have rotted away.”
The project was made possible after the Church of Ireland agreed to a long-term loan of the cross, and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency gave consent for the officially protected cross to be moved to the museum and to fund its removal and conservation.