Irish Bronze Age Goldwork

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In Europe the earliest evidence for goldworking dates to the fifth millennium b.c. By the end of the third millennium goldworking had become well established in Ireland and Britain, together with a highly productive copper- and bronzeworking industry. While it is not known precisely how the Late Neolithic people of Ireland became familiar with the use of metal, it is clear that it was introduced as a fully developed process. Essential metalworking skills must have been introduced by people already experienced at all levels of production, from identification and recovery of ores through every stage of the manufacturing process.

During the Early Bronze Age, between 2200 and 1700 b.c., goldsmiths produced a limited range of ornaments. The principal products were sun discs, usually found in pairs, such as those from Tedavnet, County Monaghan; plain and decorated bands; and especially the crescent gold collars called lunulae (singular lunula, "little moon"). These objects were all made from sheet gold—a technique that is particularly well represented by the lunulae, many of which are beaten extremely thin. A lunula such as the one from Rossmore Park, County Monaghan exemplifies the high level of control and skill achieved by the earliest goldsmiths. During this early period decoration consisted mainly of geometric motifs, such as triangles, lozenges, and groups of lines arranged in patterns. Incision using a sharp tool and repoussé (working from behind to produce a raised pattern) were the principal techniques employed. Sheet-gold objects continued to be produced up to about 1400 b.c.

By about 1200 b.c. there was a remarkable change in the types of ornaments made in the workshops. New goldworking methods were developed, and new styles began to appear. Twisting of bars or strips of gold became the most commonly used technique, and a great variety of twists can be seen. By altering the form of the bar or strip of gold and

by controlling the degree of torsion, a wide range of styles could be produced. Torcs (torques) might be as small as earrings or as large as the exceptionally grand pair from Tara, County Meath, which are 37.3 centimeters and 43.0 centimeters in diameter and weigh 385 grams and 852 grams respectively. Many of these ornaments necessitated very large amounts of gold, suggesting that a new source for gold had been discovered. Between 1000 and 850 b.c. there seems to have been a lull in goldworking, as few gold objects can be dated to that time. It may be that this apparent gap is caused by changes in deposition practices, which have made it difficult to identify objects of this period.

The succeeding phase was extremely productive, however, and is noted for the great variety and quality of both goldwork and bronzework. Goldsmiths had developed to a very high degree all the skills necessary to make a range of ornaments that differed in form and technique. The same care and attention to detail were applied to objects large and small, irrespective of whether they required the expenditure of vast quantities of gold or only a few grams.

The goldwork of this period can be divided into two main types. Solid objects, cast or made from bars and ingots, such as bracelets, dress fasteners, and split-ring ornaments (incomplete circular objects for use in the ears, nose, hair, and so forth), contrast dramatically with delicate collars (fig. 1) and ear spools made of sheet gold. Gold wire also was used in numerous ways but especially to produce the ornaments called lock rings (elaborate, biconical ornaments made from wire probably used as hair ornaments). Thin gold foil, sometimes highly decorated, was used to cover objects made from other metals, such as copper, bronze, or lead. The best example of this technique is the bulla from the Bog of Allen, a heart-shaped lead core covered by a highly decorated fine gold foil. The purpose of this and other similar objects is not fully understood, but they may have been used as amulets or charms.

Decoration is an important feature of Late Bronze Age goldwork. Many different motifs were used to achieve the complicated patterns that often cover the entire surface of the object, consisting of geometric shapes, concentric circles, raised bosses (domed or conical), and rope and herringbone designs. The goldsmiths produced these motifs through combinations of repoussé and chasing, stamping with specially made punches, as well as incising the surface of the gold.

Knowledge of Bronze Age goldwork from Ireland is largely dependent on the discovery of groups of objects in hoards. At least 160 hoards of the Late Bronze Age have been recorded from Ireland. Several different types of hoards have been found, including founders' hoards consisting of scrap metal, merchants' hoards containing objects for trade, and ritual or votive hoards deliberately deposited with no intention and, in many cases, no possibility of recovery. Hoards can contain tools, weapons, and personal ornaments using bronze, gold, and amber. Where tools and weapons occur together with ornaments or jewelry, it may be that they represent the personal regalia of an individual. In Ireland there is little or no evidence from burials to show how or by whom certain ornaments were worn.

The number of spectacular discoveries from bogs suggests that the people of the Bronze Age, particularly during its later phases, regarded them as special places. In the eighteenth century a remarkable series of discoveries was made in the Bog of Cullen in County Tipperary. Very many bronze and gold objects were found during turf cutting over a period of about seventy years. Only one gold object can be positively identified from the Bog of Cullen. It is a decorated terminal, the only surviving fragment of a once magnificent dress fastener. This is one of a series of exceptionally large objects weighing up to 1 kilogram apiece.

A large hoard of gold ornaments found in 1854 in marshy ground close to a lake at Mooghaun North, County Clare, contained more than two hundred objects, most of which were melted down. The hoard consisted mainly of bracelets but also included at least six gold collars and two neck rings. It is difficult to explain the reason for the deposition of such a huge wealth of gold. Its discovery close to a lake suggests that is was a ritual deposit.

During the Bronze Age, Irish goldsmiths did not function as an isolated group of specialist craftspeople on the western shores of Europe. While they maintained links with Britain and Europe, drawing some of their inspiration from trends that were current abroad, they always imparted a characteristically Irish style to each product. At the same time they likewise expressed their individuality and creativity by producing gold ornaments that are unparalleled elsewhere.

See alsoBronze Age Britain and Ireland (vol. 2, part 5); Jewelry (vol. 2, part 7); Early Christian Ireland (vol. 2, part 7).


Armstrong, Edmund Clarence Richard. Catalogue of Irish Gold Ornaments in the Collection of the Royal Irish Academy. Dublin: National Museum of Science and Art, 1933.

Cahill, Mary. "Before the Celts—Treasures in Gold and Bronze." In Treasures of the National Museum of Ireland: Irish Antiquities. Edited by Patrick F. Wallace and Raghnall Ò Floinn, pp. 86–124. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 2002.

Eogan, George. The Accomplished Art: Gold and Gold Working in Britain and Ireland during the Bronze Age. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 1994.

Mary Cahill