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