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Bronze Age Culture

Bronze Age Culture

The precise nature of the influences which resulted in Ireland in the change from a Neolithic economy predominately dependent on stone for the production of tools and weapons is not fully understood. What is known is that together with changes in burial practices and pottery types, other important technological changes also took place. These changes occurred from about 2500 b.c.e. and were responsible for the introduction not simply of objects made from copper and gold but of the complete metalworking process. The knowledge that results in the production of finished metal objects is complex, involving many different stages, including the sourcing of the raw materials, the winning or mining of the ores, the production of metal by smelting and refining the ores, and the fabrication of objects. It has been generally accepted that the people who introduced a new type of pottery called Beaker pottery, which occurs also in Britain and continental Europe, were instrumental in the introduction of metalworking.

The Early Bronze Age

Ireland had rich sources of copper ores, especially in the southwest, which were identifiable by these early prospectors, and which resulted in the development of a significant copper- and later, bronze-working industry. One of the most important sites for the production of copper ore and metal was discovered at Ross Island, Killarney, Co. Kerry. Excavations here have produced thousands of stone hammers used to break up the orebearing rock as well as evidence of smelting ores and habitation debris, including Beaker pottery. Radiocarbon dates ranging from 2400 to 2000 b.c.e. have shown that Ross Island is the earliest dated copper mine in western Europe. It is likely that it produced the major portion of the copper requirements of Ireland in the earliest stages of the Bronze Age. An important technological improvement occurred with the development of the copper/tin alloy called bronze, which is a more durable metal. This occurred at about 2100 b.c.e. The tin mines of Cornwall, in the southwest of England, were the most likely source of the tin used in Ireland. The objects produced at this time were chiefly axeheads, daggers, and halberds, cast in one-piece or two-piece stone molds and finished by hammering. The change from copper to bronze can be observed in the gradual improvements in the functionality of the tools and weapons being made.

At the same time gold was also being used to produce a range of ornaments made from sheet gold. Although the sources of the gold used in Ireland throughout the Bronze Age have not yet been located, gold is found in different parts of the country. The products of the Early Bronze Age include the so-called basket earrings, decorated discs and plaques usually found in pairs, and collars of crescentic shape called lunula(e). More than eighty lunulae have been found in Ireland. A small number were found in Britain and western Europe; some of them were exported from Ireland and others are copies of the Irish form. The finest of them show that gold-working skills were developed to a high degree, as the thinly beaten gold sheet and delicate patterns of geometric motifs demonstrate. The carefully executed patterns of incised lozenges, triangles, zigzag motifs, and groups of lines are symmetrically arranged, producing original compositions from a very limited repertoire of motifs. Similar decorative patterns are also seen on pottery and some types of bronze axehead.

Burial practices also changed; gradually, large tombs built above ground were replaced by burials placed in small stone-lined structures called cists. The classic Beaker burial, consisting of a single crouched inhumation accompanied by a ceramic vessel and other objects such as barbed and tanged flint arrowheads and stone wrist bracers, does not occur in Ireland. However, the same rite of burial, accompanied by a highly decorated pottery Bowl and occasionally objects of stone, bone, or bronze, was adopted. Other pottery types, including Vases and different types of urns (vase urns, encrusted urns, cordoned and collared urns) were also used. A variety of burial rites which included cremation and the placing of the cremated remains (in many cases representing more than one person) in a large urn to be buried upside down in a pit, were adopted. These burials occur in isolation, in flat cemeteries, or under or within mounds of earth and/or stone. These burial practices continued until about 1400 b.c.e., when they were replaced by the interment of cremated remains in pits or in large undecorated vessels similar to pots from domestic sites. This became the predominant burial rite for the remainder of the Bronze Age. These are found in unmarked cemeteries and other sites, such as ring barrows or ring ditches.

Settlement or habitation sites vary throughout the Bronze Age and include enclosed and unenclosed sites containing round or oval houses and other ancillary structures, some of which may have been used for storage or for housing animals. Lakeside settlements and the use of artificial islands called crannógs and small natural islands were a feature of Late Bronze Age society, and the building of large enclosures on hilltop sites from the end of the second millennium is thought by some to suggest a lack of stability and a need for defensive enclosures. Another view is that these sites were places of assembly for important seasonal events.

The Middle Bronze Age

During the period called the Middle Bronze Age (c. 1700–1200 b.c.e.) the production of bronze and gold metalwork continued, but there were changes in metallurgical techniques and in the types of objects being produced. Axeheads and daggers continued to be made while spearheads and rapiers were introduced. The hafting of tools and weapons was continuously improved as fully socketed forms were developed. Casting techniques also improved, and sophisticated two-part stone molds and eventually clay molds were used. Work in gold also continued, although the ornaments produced were very different from those of the earlier period. Probably through influences from the Mediterranean, objects of twisted bars and strips of gold became common. Some, such as the pair of torcs from Tara, Co. Meath, are extremely large and heavy, suggesting that rich sources of ore were available. Sheet gold was still used, but chiefly for armlets decorated with raised ribs and grooved bands, such as those from Derrinboy, Co. Offaly.

The occurrence of monuments such as stone circles, stone alignments (two or more stones in a row), and standing stones suggests a continuing interest in the building of structures that dominate the landscape. Some of these monuments are oriented in ways that suggest alignment on specific solar events. Others have been used for burials. The monuments known in Ireland as fulachta fiadh—mounds of cracked and burnt stone surrounding timber- or stone-lined pits—occur in large numbers in many parts of the country. They may have been used as cooking places, for bathing, or for another as yet unknown purpose that required large quantities of hot water.

The construction of hillforts from about 1200 b.c.e. and the appearance in the artifactual record of large numbers of bronze swords suggest that the later stages of the Bronze Age (1000–500 b.c.e.) were unsettled. Nevertheless, the manufacture of bronze and gold objects continued, with many new forms being introduced. Further technological advances produced cast bronze horns, while sheet-work skills were perfected in the fabrication of cauldrons and shields.

Similar techniques were used to produce a huge variety of gold ornaments, including sheet-gold collars (called gorgets) and ear-spools, while cast and hammered bars were used to make a great variety of bracelets and dress-fasteners. Collars and ear-spools are decorated with raised ribs and cable patterns, conical bosses, and groups of concentric circles. These were produced using a wide range of goldsmithing techniques, such as repoussé, chasing, stamping, and raising. Finely beaten gold foils were used to cover split-ring ornaments of different types, pinheads, and bullae (amulets) of base metals. Gold wire was used to stitch the component parts of gold collars together, to decorate as filigree, and to make the biconical ornaments called lock-rings.

Large and small quantities of objects, as well as single objects, were regularly abandoned both on dry land and in wet and boggy places, many in situations from which they could never be recovered. Some hoards, such as the one from a bog at Dowris, Co. Offaly, contained hundreds of bronze objects, including axeheads, spearheads, horns, crotals, and cauldrons. The hoard found at Mooghaun, Co. Clare, contained hundreds of gold bracelets and many gold collars. The custom of hoarding was common all over Europe and must have been part of the wider social and ritual lives of the people.

While metalwork, ceramics, and stone predominate during the Bronze Age in Ireland, other media such as wood, leather, bone, jet, amber, wool, and other natural materials were used to provide a range of everyday and special objects.

From about 700 b.c.e. a gradual change from a mainly bronze-working economy to one based on the use of iron as the preferred metal took place. These changes were profound and irreversible, affecting all aspects of society. Eventually, iron replaced bronze as the preferred metal for the production of tools and weapons, and bronze was restricted mostly to objects of a more decorative nature. Gold was almost completely abandoned and was never again used in Ireland to the same extent or with the same degree of unbounded plenitude.

SEE ALSO Prehistoric and Celtic Ireland; Stone Age Settlement


Armstrong, E. C. R. Catalogue of Irish Gold Ornaments in the Collection of the Royal Irish Academy. 1920. Reprint, 1933.

Cahill, Mary. "Later Bronze Age Goldwork from Ireland—Form, Function, and Formality." In Ireland in the Bronze Age, edited by John Waddell and E. Shee Twohig. 1995.

Cahill, Mary. "Before the Celts: Treasures in Gold in Bronze." In Treasures of the National Museum of Ireland: Irish Antiquities, edited by Patrick F. Wallace and Raghnall Ó Floinn. 2002.

Cooney, Gabriel, and Eoin Grogan. Irish Prehistory: A Social Perspective. 1994.

Eogan, George. Hoards of the Irish Later Bronze Age. 1983.

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

Waddell, John. The Prehistoric Archaeology of Ireland. 1998.

Mary Cahill

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