Bronze Age  Ireland                       Archaeology Ireland                                   Home


The Irish Bronze Age  dates from 2500BC to around 700BC.  It is divided into two main periods The Early Bronze and the Later Bronze Age. For many, the Bronze age is the most exciting period of Irish Archaeology, given that it was during this time that metal working first made an appearance, mining for copper was first carried out, and Ireland's wonderful goldsmithing came into being, creating objects of beauty that can now be seen in our National museum.  Burial practices also changed during the bronze age and ritual practices in stone circles are from this era. 

Bronze Age Gold Ireland

Bronze Age Gold from Ireland

 

 

Change came slowly to the inhabitants of Ireland 4,500 years ago and we must expect that burial practises, the use of flint and other stone tools from the Neolithic period overlapped the Irish Bronze Age  by many hundreds if not thousands of years.  Flint was too useful a commodity to be abandoned overnight and the copper and bronze tools of the Bronze Age  in Ireland may well have been too expensive for all to aspire to.  

What is Bronze?
Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin.  The earlier part of the Bronze age is sometimes referred to as the Copper Age owing to the use of copper in a purer, but less useful state at that time.  Later on, the introduction of tin, likely imported from Wales made it possible to forge better and more sophisticated tools and weapons from the new alloy. These tools and weapons would have been available to just a few sections of society and this brought about social changes which saw hierarchies established with the ownership and access to the new metal being the overiding factor in establishing where one ranked in this hierarchy.

 

Bronze Age sword and bucket from the Later Bronze Age.  The sword handle would have been made of wood or antler and, being organic, is not recovered when the swords come to light during archaeological excavation.  The holes in the handle are rivet holes.  These rivets would have secured the handle and possibly a small plate to protect the swordsman's hand. 

Bronze Age Sword

Bronze Age Bucket

Pottery too changed during the Bronze Age and among the earliest types one finds small elegantly crafted pots known as Beaker pottery.  Beaker pottery has also been found in Europe dating from around the same period. These Beaker pots were used as drinking vessels and it is still debated as to whther or not Beaker Folk arrived here from Europe bringing this particular tradition with them or if the use of such pots was adopted by those already resident here by the absorption of cultures which slowly filtered into the country. This early period was also when axes of copper were made and it is thought the axes had more symbolic value that practical value as axes.  Other implements of note from the time were tanged flint arrowheads, tanged copper daggers and stone wrist-guards.  

The bronze axeheads from the Bronze Age are particularly interesting as archaeologists have been able to classify them chronilogically and by so doing, been able to date other objects found in association.  The earliest copper axexhead was a Lough Ravel type and the evolution of this implement saw the method of affixing a handle changing a number of times. Other types are Killaha and Ballyvally.

The change-over from copper to Bronze took place around 1700BC.  Most of the finds of axeheads and other metal objects like awls, daggers and halberds are from stray finds rather than in burials or settlements. Halberds are odd looking implements that must have been ceremonial rather than having any practical use.  These were made of copper or bronze. Over 2000 axes have been found from Ireland's Early Bronze age.

Rough sketches of Bronze Age Axe-heads. The first three were secured to the wooden handle by being inserted into a hole in the handle or into a split handle which was then bound with leather and resin. The axe on the right looks odd but does have a sharpened axe cutting edge.

The axehead on right of picture which resembles a small jug/pitcher is from the Late Bronze Age.  Having the handle shaped and fitted into the head rather than the other way around was much more efficient. The  handle was used to secure a leather thong from the handle to the axe-head.  With the axe-head fitting into the wooden handle as before,the problem of splitting handles must have been a constant one.

The earliest copper mining recorded in Ireland is at Ross Island in Killarney, Co. Kerry. Mount Gabriel in Co. Cork presents the best evidence while at Derrycarhoon in Co. Cork six Bronze Age copper mining shafts were discovered under ten feet of turf-bog.  William O'Brien's 'Bronze Age Copper Mining in Britain and Ireland' published by Shire Publications is well worth a place on your shelf if you have an interest in this area of Irish archaeology. Mining was carried out by setting fires at the mine face and then using stone hammers to break the ore-bearing rock away from the face.  The ore was then taken to a place where wood was readily available to fuel the furnaces that were needed to melt the crushed ore. Tens of tons of dry wood had to be on hand to melt one ton of ore. Throughout the Bronze age Bronze Cauldrons, Shields, daggers and swords, were among the items found in different contexts.  Almost 120 bronze musical horns (some in pieces) have been recorded in Ireland. Some of these were almost S shaped and the curved trumpet part was held above the head and faced towards the audience. (Hearing a wonderful musical performance on one of these horns was the highlight of a visit to the National Museum a few years ago for me and my son.)

Ireland appears to have been rich in Gold in the Bronze Age and we are fortunate that many gold items have survived and are to be seen in the National museum in Dublin.  However, many of the gold artifacts found in Ireland during the nineteenth century were melted down for the gold or sent to museums in England. Some scholars make a good case for the importation of gold from Europe during the Bronze age as Ireland could not have produced the amount of gold needed to produce the estimated  amount of gold objects created.  There is plenty of evidence for trade between Ireland and Europe at that time.

 Gold ornaments are classified as Gorgets, Sleeve and dress fasteners, Gold discs, Bracelets, Gold Lunulae, and Gold Torcs.

Gold Gorget from Ireland's Bronze Age

Bronze Age Burials
 Burials in the early Irish Bronze Age were both unburnt burial and cremation.   In the unburnt burial the corpse was often placed in a crouched position within a four sided and covered small stone tomb beneath the earth.  These small tombs are called cists (often pronounced 'Kists').  Some Bronze Age burials were on hilltops similar to passage tombs.  These hilltop burials were usually covered by a large mound of stones called a cairn.  Only some of the Bronze Age burials contain grave goods and this is usually a piece of pottery.  The pottery is divided into a number of classifications.  Food Vessels are small bowls found beside the corpse and it is thought they were a ritual of burning some food with the dead which would indicate a belief in the afterlife. This tradition is known as the Bowl tradition.

The Vase Tradition is associated with cremation of the dead.  The vases were either in the grave with the burnt remains or actually contained the burnt remains.   Other vases were much larger and are called urns.  Encrusted urns were usually placed mouth downwards over the dead.  These are sometimes found during ploughing and the urns very often get broken.

Another Urn tradition is called Collared Urn tradition.  These cordoned urns are so-called because of the ribs or cordons on their sides.  They too are placed mouth down over the remains.

The Wedge tombs were a continuation of the Neolithic wedge tomb tradition.  which are described here.


Bronze Age Ritual
Stone Circles, Stone Rows, and Standing Stones are quite evocative in the Irish landscape and still cause people to pause and contemplate their raison d'etre and to imagine the rituals which took place at, or in them and to try to imagine the people who performed such ritual.  Were they for marriage?... a baptism of some sort?...  funeral rites?...  sacrifice? Nothing else in Irish archaeology has this power of connecting the peoples of the past with the people of the present.  To stand in the centre of a Bronze Age stone circle on the side of a windswept hill can be a moving experience.

Drombeg Stone Circle

Drombeg Stone Circle, Co. Cork

                                                                                        

Stone Circles There are two distinct types of stone circle in Ireland.  In West Cork - Kerry the circles are made up of uneven numbers of stones from five to seventeen and these contain an area  of between 8 feet and fifty feet. The entrance faces the north-east and a stone opposite the entrance is called the axial stone. Some of the circles have a boulder burial within them.  Boulder burials are very simple in plan and are just what they describe, a burial, usually cremated, with a large boulder marking the spot.

In Fermanagh, Tyrone and Derry a group of Bronze Age stone circles are classified as the Mid-Ulster Group.  There are some differences between this group and the Cork Kerry group.  These differences occur in the spasing between the stones, the size of the stones and the number of stones.  Tharea within the Ulster group is usually smaller that that of there southern counterparts.

 

 The largest stone circle in Ireland is that of Grange at Lough Gur in County Limerick.  This is very accessible and an effort should be made to get to it if you have an interest in how our Bronze Age ancestors conducted their daily lifes.  It measures 150 feet in diameter and is enclosed by 113 standing stones.  The stones are surrounded by and supported by a forty foot wide bank The largest stone  is over 13 feet high and is estimated to weigh 40 tons. It was built over 4000 years ago.

Grange Stone Circle at Lough Gur in County Limerick

Grange Stone Circle at Lough Gur.  (Photo by Jon Sullivan)

Irish Bronze Age     Irish Archaeology

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