Iron Age Ireland

views updated


followed by feature essay on:

Irish Royal Sites . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 239

Iron Age Ireland suffers from a paucity of sites and serious dating problems, which makes it difficult to construct a coherent framework within which to attempt interpretation. Thus, the Iron Age lingers in the long shadow of medieval Ireland; the abundant and varied medieval literature and the rich and prolific material culture of the medieval period have strongly affected the interpretation of Iron Age archaeology. Increasingly, however, Iron Age archaeological research is being generated by archaeologists, formulated in archaeological terms, and conducted using an array of archaeological methods, including aerial photography, geophysical survey, and underwater and wetland (i.e., peat bog) exploration. These research agendas do not ignore medieval textual and archaeological evidence; rather, they reflect increasing confidence that a coherent framework for Iron Age archaeology can be constructed.


To begin with a note about terminology, "medieval" is used here to distinguish the period from the fifth century to c. 1500. In Irish writing, archaeologists normally employ the terms "early Christian" for the fifth century a.d. to a.d. 800, "Hiberno-Norse" or "Viking" for a.d. 800–1169, and "medieval" starting with the Anglo-Norman invasions of a.d. 1169–1172. For our purposes, we can think of the Iron Age in terms of three periods bounded by the Late Bronze Age, which ended c. 700 b.c., and the early Christian period. There is almost no available data for the Early Iron Age, which spanned c. 700–300 b.c. The Middle Iron Age, or La Tène Iron Age, lasted from 300 b.c. into the first century a.d. It was a time that saw major construction at many sites and the appearance and development of La Tène art, which flourished into the early Christian period. In the Late Iron Age, or Roman Iron Age, contacts with the Roman world, especially with Britain, began, as indicated by imports of various goods. The earliest evidence of writing dates to this time. The period ends with the first recorded Christian missions, about a.d. 431/432.

Archaeologists still depend heavily on conventional dating by stylistic analyses and comparisons, so this discussion will start there. The closing phase of the Late Bronze Age, the Dowris phase, ended c. 700 b.c. The first subsequent datable object is an imported gold torc (neck ring) from Knock, County Roscommon, decorated in La Tène style and with close parallels in the Rhineland from c. 300 b.c. A hoard from Broighter, County Derry, includes a gold torc with spectacular La Tène decoration, which is dated approximately by another item in the same collection, a gold necklace of Mediterranean

origin from the first century b.c. or the first century a.d. As the Roman Empire expanded into Gaul (in the mid-first century b.c.) and Britain (in mid-first century a.d.), increasing contact with the Roman world resulted in the appearance in Ireland of well-dated Roman goods, such as coins and pottery. Coins are not plentiful, though, and most come from isolated hoards, unrelated to sites, while Roman pottery is rare.

Radiocarbon dating has been applied to the Iron Age, of course, but for much of the period the tree-ring samples used for calibration show little difference in amounts of residual radiocarbon over several centuries. In consequence, dates are correspondingly imprecise. Fortunately, however, the dendrochronological sequence for Irish oak makes it possible to date the felling of a tree accurately, often to the exact year. The waterlogged conditions necessary for the survival of wood, which are common in this region, make this technique applicable to many Irish archaeological sites. The contrast in precision between radiocarbon dating and dendrochronology is well illustrated at Navan, County Armagh, where the base of a phase 4 central post has survived. The radiocarbon date for this post is 380–100 b.c., a range of 280 years. Dendrochronology provided a felling date for this post of 95 b.c. (or possibly early 94 b.c.).


There are two major reasons why so few Iron Age sites are known. The first, paradoxically, is the sheer number of sites. The issue of ringforts, or raths, is particularly important here, for there is hot debate as to whether these enclosed farmsteads are all of early medieval date or whether some may be of the Iron Age. Of those that have been excavated and that can be dated (many cannot), almost all are indeed early medieval. There are, however, some thirty thousand ringforts, of which only about 1 percent have been excavated—hardly a statistically adequate sample. Moreover, there are other types of circular sites of the same general size (e.g., henges, ring barrows, and small monasteries) that are easily confused with ringforts unless closely inspected.

The second reason is that field-walking survey cannot be employed in this context. This method is put to effective use in many parts of the world and simply involves walking over plowed land, looking for scatters of artifacts, typically, potsherds. In Ireland, however, a high percentage of farmland is under pasture, and other large areas are covered by blanket bog. Moreover, the Iron Age is virtually aceramic, which means that there is virtually no chance of finding diagnostic ceramics and little likelihood of finding diagnostic metal artifacts.

EARLY IRON AGE (C. 700–300 b.c.)

Hardly any artifacts can been attributed to this period, and only two sites merit discussion. The first is the crannog of Rathtinaun, County Sligo, where excavation showed a two-phase occupation. Phase 1 contained only Late Bronze Age Dowris-type artifacts, but phase 2 held both Dowris-type artifacts and a few iron objects. Rathtinaun, then, appears to bridge the Bronze Age and Iron Age and should date to the eighth to seventh centuries b.c. Radiocarbon dates, however, indicate that the site was occupied no earlier than the fifth through second centuries b.c.

Second, there is site B at Navan. As at Rathtinaun, phase 3 artifacts were from the Dowris phase, with only a few small iron objects. Phase 3 radiocarbon dates, however, range from the fourth century b.c. into early a.d. times; since the end of phase 3 was followed immediately by phase 4, dated precisely to 95 b.c. (from dendrochronology), it is virtually certain that phase 3 lasted until about 100 b.c. The problems posed by these two sites cannot be resolved at present and so, by the same token, the Early Iron Age remains singularly elusive.

MIDDLE IRON AGE (C. 300 b.c. TO C. a.d. 100)

The date of c. 300 b.c. for the start of this period is based, as noted, on the first appearance of the La Tène art style. Nearly all the Iron Age La Tène decorated objects in Ireland are found on the northern half of the island. The development of La Tène art in this area owes much to close contacts with Wales and northern Britain, just across the Irish Sea. Irish craft workers, however, were not mere imitators, for they produced their own variations of British types as well as some artifact styles unique to Ireland, such as Y-shaped objects, Monasterevin disks, Petrie and Cork crowns, and the so-called latchets. As elsewhere in Europe, La Tène art was displayed mainly on high-status personal metalwork. There are also numerous bronze horse bits, several in pairs, suggesting that the two-horse chariots so well known from Iron Age Britain and the Continent were used in Ireland as well. Some of the enigmatic Y-shaped pieces also occur in pairs and may be components of chariot harnessing. Iron spearheads are known, as are fine bronze spear butts.

To judge by several beautifully decorated bronze scabbards, however, swords were the warriors' pride. Stylistically, they derive from Continental swords of the third through second centuries b.c. The Irish ones are much shorter—the blades ranging from 37 to 46 centimeters; one wonders how they could be used, except as long daggers. Of all the scabbards and swords, only one sword comes from a securely dated context—the excavation at Knockaulin, probably from the first century b.c. or first century a.d.

Although most of La Tène art finds expression on metal items of personal equipment or adornment, there are five La Tène decorated stones; the one at Turoe, County Galway (fig. 1), is embellished most adeptly. There are also numerous querns (grindstones) with La Tène decoration. Many carved stone heads are attributed to the Iron Age, but they bear only the vaguest stylistic resemblance to Iron Age human representations elsewhere.

Almost all decorated metalwork has been discovered accidentally, much of it taken from bogs and lakes. The practice of votive deposits also is known in Britain and on the Continent. In those places, decorated metalwork also appears in burials, however, providing good associations and dating evidence. In Ireland few burials contain such artifacts, and they are virtually absent from the few excavated sites, which makes it doubly difficult to date them or to relate them to other aspects of Iron Age life (and death).

The major sites of the Middle Iron Age are the so-called royal sites. Their commanding locations and large sizes imply that they were the most important sites of the Middle Iron Age, dominating ritual and ceremonial life over considerable areas. Despite their prominence, they have yielded no deposits of high-status valuables. Such items seem to have been reserved for watery places. Significantly, four bronze trumpets with La Tène decoration (and, reportedly, human skulls) were found in the nineteenth century in Loughnashade, a small lake just below Navan. One remarkable exotic import was discovered in a late phase 3 context at Navan (site B), however. This was the skull of a Barbary ape (with a radiocarbon date of 390–20 b.c.), which certainly had traveled a very long way from its homeland in northwestern Africa.

The Dorsey, County Armagh, is a very large, irregular enclosure about 30 kilometers south of Navan. Parts of it run across bog, which preserved timbers from its construction. Dendrochronological dates from these timbers show two phases of building, the first between 159 and 126 b.c. and the second between 104 and 86 b.c. The Dorsey lies close to a section of the Black Pig's Dyke, a series of linear earthworks running east to west across Ireland. This set of earthworks may have marked the southern boundary of Iron Age Ulster, for one section of the dyke is dated by radiocarbon to 390–70 b.c. Other linear earthworks in Ireland may be of the Iron Age also, but none are dated. Trackways constructed across bogland have been dated to the Iron Age by dendrochronology. The best known of these is Corlea, County Longford, where excavation uncovered two stretches of road over 2 kilometers long, with dates of 156 ± 9 b.c. and 148 b.c. Construction required two hundred to three hundred mature oak trees, besides other species.

Hillforts are a prominent feature of Iron Age landscapes over much of western Europe, so the sixty to eighty hillforts in Ireland conventionally have been assigned to this period. Of the few excavated so far, however, most appear to be Late Bronze Age rather than Iron Age. Moreover, they are very diverse in size and form. Some are so compact that they could be seen as substantial ringforts or cashels on hilltops, some are large and rambling in plan, and some have ramparts so small (as little as 1 meter high) that probably they were not forts at all. Whether there are really Iron Age hillforts in Ireland is moot. Of the estimated 250 known coastal promontory forts, a few have been excavated, but only Dunbeg, County Kerry, has any dating evidence—a radiocarbon date from the first few centuries a.d., probably Late Iron Age or even early medieval, rather than Middle Iron Age.

Residential sites are very scanty indeed. One site under a ringfort at Feerwore, County Galway, produced a few artifacts for which dating to the second to first century b.c. has been suggested. Two coastal shell-midden sites have radiocarbon dates placing them in the Middle Iron Age, as do two crannogs at Lough Gara, County Sligo. There is one small ringfort known for the period, at Lislackagh, County Mayo, where internal circular structures were radiocarbon dated to 200 b.c. to a.d. 140. A handful of other sites have dates overlapping both the Middle and Late Iron Ages. Despite the limited evidence for daily life in the Middle Iron Age, it is clear that major constructions were undertaken, which implies the mobilization of substantial groups of skilled labor. Particularly noteworthy is the practically simultaneous construction of phase 4 at Navan (95 b.c.) and the later phase of building at the Dorsey (104–86 b.c.). The proximity of these two sites suggests that one authority might have directed construction at both.

LATE IRON AGE (C. a.d. 100 TO C. 550 a.d.)

There is no obvious demarcation between the Middle and Late Iron Ages. Roman material began to appear during the first century a.d., possibly as early as the first century b.c. It is not until the late first century a.d., however, that evidence appears of close (though not necessarily intense) contact with the Roman world, so an arbitrary date of c. a.d. 100 seems suitable. The main issue for consideration is the extent to which interaction with the Roman world promoted changes in Irish society.

J. Donal Bateson has reviewed Roman materials in Ireland in detail, and the total is surprisingly small, considering Ireland's proximity to Roman Britain and Gaul. Clearly, Roman goods were not reaching Ireland in anything like the quantities that reached, say, Germany and the southern Baltic during the same period. Roman imports into Ireland fall into two chronological groups, the first through second centuries and the fourth through fifth centuries. There is very little third-century Roman material, perhaps reflecting the widespread economic contraction of the period, demonstrated, for example, by the contraction of trade from the Continent to Britain. The material in the earlier category consists mainly of coins and fibulae (brooches) and very small amounts of Gaulish Samian (terra sigillata) pottery. The objects in this group and their contexts are reasonably consistent with trade and small-scale contacts. The later group, of the fourth through fifth centuries, also includes coins but has significant quantities of silver in the form of ingots and hack-silver (silver artifacts cut into pieces). These items look suspiciously like the result of successful raiding, and we know from Roman sources of this period that the Irish (or Scotti) participated in the frequent barbarian raids on Roman Britain.

There are a very few burials in Roman style. A cremation in a glass container at Stonyford, County Kilkenny, from the first or early second century a.d., and an inhumation cemetery at Bray, County Wicklow, from the second century a.d. both show familiarity with Roman burial practices of the time. Presumably, these are the burials of either Roman immigrants or emigrants returned from the Roman world. Grave goods from the small inhumation cemetery on Lambay Island, County Dublin, show close affinities with items from northern Britain in the late first century a.d., and the people may have been British refugees from the Roman conquest. Inhumation burial with the body extended appears to have become increasingly common through the Late Iron Age, and some such burials are in long cists (graves lined with stone slabs). Because extended inhumation burial began to replace cremation from about the second century a.d. in the Roman Empire, the same shift in Ireland may reflect Roman practice. Dating Irish burials is seriously hampered by the general lack of grave goods, however.

Two other disparate examples of Roman contact come from Golden, County Tipperary, and Lough Lene, County Westmeath. At Golden there was a small Roman oculist's stamp of slate, inscribed along one edge, and at Lough Lene part of a flatbottomed boat of Mediterranean construction was found. It is assumed to be of Roman date, although its radiocarbon date is 300–100 b.c. (This, of course, dates the growth of the wood and not necessarily the boat's construction.)

There are few remains of residential sites from the Late Iron Age. Traces of occupation from beneath two ringforts have been radiocarbon dated to the third through seventh centuries a.d., whereas dates from several structures on Mount Knocknarea, County Sligo, range from the first centuryb.c. to the seventh century a.d. A sherd of Gaulish terra sigillata pottery of the first century a.d. was plowed up at the large coastal promontory fort of Drumanagh, County Dublin. This find has fueled suggestions that this site may have been a trading station, and the proximity of Lambay Island, with its cemetery of possible British refugees, lends credence to the theory.

At Tara, County Meath, the Rath of the Synods has yielded intriguing evidence. The finds suggest that the site had four phases of occupation: the first and third were small cemeteries, while the second and fourth were probably residential. Artifacts included some items of Gaulish terra sigillata of the first to second centuries a.d., a lead seal, glass beads, and iron padlocks. All the datable objects fall within the first to fifth centuries a.d. It is striking that although several objects certainly or probably are imports from the Roman world, none are definitely of Irish manufacture. This, then, is the most "Roman" site known in Ireland, but it assuredly does not conform to any type of actual Roman site. The location of the Rath of the Synods at a royal site must surely be significant, but how this site should be interpreted is unclear.

Toward the end of the Late Iron Age, perhaps in the fourth century a.d., the first indications of native Irish literacy appear in the form of ogham inscriptions, in which letters of the alphabet are denoted by different combinations of vertical or oblique strokes. The model for an alphabetic script presumably was Roman, and its employment on memorial stones also echoes Roman usage. There is no space here to debate the vexed issue of when the Irish language first entered Ireland, but these ogham inscriptions are the earliest written evidence for the language. The script also demonstrates the presence of Irish settlers in western Britain, where ogham inscriptions (many duplicated in Latin) date to the fifth and sixth centuries, particularly in Wales and southwestern Britain.


The picture of Iron Age Ireland sketched here is one dominated by a welter of unassociated objects from chance discoveries, which can be organized into a somewhat murky picture only with difficulty. It is striking that the only really coherent archaeological evidence of Iron Age Ireland comes from larger-scale excavations, such as those of wetland areas and royal sites. Even so, it is still virtually unknown where and how people lived. It is no wonder that the abundant historical and archaeological evidence of early medieval Ireland, highly visible and largely comprehensible, still casts such a long interpretative shadow over the Iron Age.

The traditional or "nativist" view sees Iron Age Ireland essentially as a pagan version of Christianized early medieval Ireland. Thus, the society depicted in the medieval law tracts, for example, provides a template for Iron Age society: the higher ranks, supported by clients and slaves, lived in ringforts, crannogs, and cashels and spent most of their time planning cattle raids. This view is epitomized by Kenneth Jackson's Oldest Irish Tradition: A Window on the Iron Age, an analysis of the Táin Bó Cúailnge ("Cattle Raid of Cooley," the central tale of the Ulster Cycle of stories). The Táin is an account of the raid, organized by Queen Medb (Maeve) of Connacht, to capture the famous brown bull of Cooley in Ulster. In this epic, war chariots, druids, single combat between champions, and cattle raiding are prominent. Jackson argued that these elements of the tale identified a genuine Iron Age oral epic, eventually written down in the eleventh century a.d. Moreover, Medb and her counterpart, the king of Ulster, lived at identifiable sites—respectively, Cruachain (Croghan) and Emain Macha (Navan)—which seems to add authenticity.

The nativist position has come under revisionist fire from both historians and archaeologists. Further textual analysis of the Ulster Cycle shows that it was largely a medieval composition by writers familiar with Latin literature, Greek epics, the Scriptures, and writings of the early church fathers. Similarly, increasingly fine-grained analyses of the aforementioned law tracts show that they were almost certainly composed by monks with a Christian agenda, rather than by secular scholars perpetuating traditional pre-Christian law. The excavation of two of the royal sites since Jackson's work was published shows that there are no satisfactory grounds for regarding them as the royal residences portrayed in the Táin. More specifically, Mallory has pointed out that the swords described in the Táin were long, resembling medieval swords not the very short swords of Iron Age Ireland.

The revisionists contend that the country underwent a major transformation through the centuries of contact with Rome, culminating in conversion to Christianity and the consequent introduction of literacy. In this scenario the Iron Age is seen as a depressed period when agricultural and pasture lands contracted, as shown by an increase of tree pollen in several pollen diagrams from different parts of Ireland. This contraction began in about the seventh century b.c., perhaps intensified around 200 b.c., and continued until about the third century a.d., when woodland clearance recommenced. This renewed clearance has been attributed to the introduction of the plow with iron share and coulter and of dairying, through contact with Roman Britain. It is thought that productivity of both tillage and livestock thus improved considerably, which increased the wealth of the upper classes and enabled them to invest in clients and to buy slaves. In this way, so the hypothesis has it, the rural economy and society that were so well documented in the early medieval period were triggered by innovations from the Roman world.

We have no satisfactory dating for the appearance of the iron share and coulter, however, and the introduction of dairying is the subject of controversy. Pam Crabtree has argued that the mortality pattern of cattle bones from Knockaulin, probably dating to the first century b.c. or the first century a.d., is consistent with dairying. Finbar McCormick disputed this analysis and went on to propose the hypothesis that dairying was introduced through Roman contacts (i.e., later than the Knockaulin assemblage). In addition, he argued that ringforts—those typical enclosed homesteads of the earlier medieval period—were developed specifically to provide protection for valuable dairy cattle. Milk residues have been identified, however, in British prehistoric pottery. Since this pottery is as old as the Neolithic (fourth through third millennia b.c.), it is plausible to propose that dairying was introduced to nearby Ireland in prehistoric times. Clearly, this debate will continue.

The nativist and revisionist positions are not completely incompatible: the former does not deny that the conversion to Christianity promoted substantial changes in Irish society, nor does the latter deny some continuity from Iron Age to early Christian Ireland (e.g., La Tène art). As archaeological evidence gradually accrues, and textual analysis is pursued, interpretations will improve.

See alsoMilk, Wool, and Traction: Secondary Animal Products (vol. 1, part 4); Trackways and Dugouts (vol. 1, part 4); Bronze Age Britain and Ireland (vol. 2, part 5); Irish Bronze Age Goldwork (vol. 2, part 5); La Tène Art (vol. 2, part 6); Irish Royal Sites (vol. 2, part 6); Early Christian Ireland (vol. 2, part 7); Raths, Crannogs, and Cashels (vol. 2, part 7).


Bateson, J. Donal. "Further Finds of Roman Material from Ireland." Colloquium on Hiberno-Roman Relations and Material Remains. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 76C (1976): 171–180.

——. "Roman Material from Ireland: A Reconsideration." Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 73C (1973): 21–97.

Copley, M. S., R. Berstan, S. N. Dudd et al. "Direct Chemical Evidence for Widespread Dairying in Prehistoric Britain." Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 100, no. 4 (February 18, 2003): 1524–1529.

Crabtree, Pam. "Subsistence and Ritual: The Faunal Remains from Dún Ailinne, Co. Kildare, Ireland." Emania 7 (1990): 22–25.

Fredengren, Christina. "Iron Age Crannogs in Lough Gara." Archaeology Ireland 14, no. 2 (2000): 26–28.

Jackson, Kenneth H. The Oldest Irish Tradition: A Window on the Iron Age. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1964.

Kelly, Fergus. A Guide to Early Irish Law. Early Irish Law Series, no. 3. Dublin, Ireland: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1988.

McCone, Kim. Pagan Past and Christian Present in EarlyIrish Literature. Maynooth Monographs, no. 3. Maynooth, Ireland: An Sagart, 1990.

McCormick, Finbar. "Cows, Ringforts, and the Origins of Early Christian Ireland." Emania 13 (1995): 33–37.

——. "Evidence of Dairying at Dún Ailinne?" Emania 8 (1991): 57–59.

McManus, Damian. A Guide to Ogam. Maynooth Monographs, no. 4. Maynooth, Ireland: An Sagart, 1991.

Mallory, James P. "The World of Cú Chulainn: The Archaeology of Táin Bó Cúailgne." In Aspects of the Táin. Edited by James P. Mallory, pp. 103–159. Belfast, Northern Ireland: December Publications, 1992.

——. "The Sword of the Ulster Cycle." In Studies onEarly Ireland: Essays in Honour of M. V. Duignan. Edited by Brian G. Scott, pp. 99–114. Dublin, Ireland: Association of Young Irish Archaeologists, 1981.

Megaw, M. Ruth, and J. V. S. Megaw. Celtic Art: From ItsBeginnings to the Book of Kells. Rev. ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2001.

Mitchell, Frank, and Michael Ryan. Reading the Irish Landscape. 3d ed. Dublin, Ireland: Town House, 1997.

Raftery, Barry. Pagan Celtic Ireland: The Enigma of the IrishIron Age. London: Thames and Hudson, 1994.

Thomas, Charles. Celtic Britain. London: Thames and Hudson, 1986.

Waddell, John. The Prehistoric Archaeology of Ireland. Galway, Ireland: Galway University Press, 1998.

Bernard Wailes

About this article

Iron Age Ireland

Updated About content Print Article Share Article