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The Bronze Age
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[3] The discovery of metal was a key event in human history. This was the first material that could be moulded into any desired shape. Additionally, metal was much stronger than stone and could be put to much more effective uses. The first metal that mankind widely used was bronze - an alloy of copper and tin. Although this new technology arrived in Europe around 4000BC, it did not reach Ireland for a further 2000 years. Settlers from France arrived in Ireland around 2000BC, bringing the knowledge of Bronze working with them and the existing inhabitants learned the trade from them. Slowly the culture of these bronze-working settlers merged with that of the Neolithic Irish and gave birth to the Irish Bronze Age.

Metal Working: Ireland was blessed with relatively rich copper deposits, allowing large quantities of bronze to be produced on the island. However, the copper-rich areas did not necessarily coincide with areas that had been important sources of material in the Neolithic era. Thus, the focal points in Ireland moved to regions that in some cases had been relatively devoid of previous activity, for example western Munster.

The copper itself was mined. At Mount Gabriel, county Cork, lies one of the few Bronze Age mines known anywhere in Europe, other than Austria. Dating from between 1500BC and 1200BC, it consists of 25 shallow mine shafts extending about 5 to 10 metres into the slope. Evidence from inside the mines indicates that the copper ore was probably extracted by lighting fires inside the mine and then, when the mine walls had become hot, water was splashed onto them, thus shattering the ore which could then be removed. Counties Cork and Kerry, on the south-west tip of the island, produced the bulk of Ireland's copper and it has been estimated [3 p114] that together the counties produced 370 tonnes of copper during this era. Given the fact that all Bronze Age artefacts so far found add up to around 0.2% of this total, and notwithstanding those that have been destroyed or lost down the years, it seems that Ireland exported a lot of copper during the Bronze Age. By contrast, there is not much tin in Ireland, and most of the tin that was needed to make the bronze seems to have been imported from what is now England.

What was the copper made into? Much of it was made into bronze axes. Although copper is quite soft, the tin that is alloyed with it to make bronze makes it stronger, and able to be used for longer periods before it requires sharpening. Some bronze was used to make awls and some to made daggers. A few of these items have been found decorated with geometric patterns. The Bronze Age saw a marked increase in the manufacture of weapons that were specifically designed to kill human beings. Towards the end of the Bronze Age, very complex items were being produced, sometimes cast and sometimes made from beaten sheet bronze. Examples include chauldrons and horns.

Image removed at the request of the copyright holder.

The technology for moulding the bronze improved through the Bronze Age. Initially, items were cast by pouring the bronze into a hollowed out stone, such as the one on the left. When removed, this axe head would have been attached to a wooden handle at its narrow end, while the wide, curved end would have become the blade. By the middle Bronze Age, people had invented two-part moulds, where two hollowed stones were put together and metal poured into a gap at the top. This allowed more complex items, such as daggers, to be produced. By the end of the Bronze Age, people were making wax or fat models of what they wanted to cast, putting clay round them and then heating the clay to melt the wax. They then poured in the metal and chipped away the clay once it had set.

The Bronze Age also saw the first use of gold, which was made in much the same way as bronze, and there are a number of beautiful examples of gold jewellery and other prestigious objects. As gold was useless for any practical purpose, and also because of its beautiful colour and rarity, it quickly became a highly desirable ornamental material. Its use may have coincided with the rise of the first 'aristocracies' in these communities. It is for this reason that the period is sometimes called Ireland's first "golden age" although this is a somewhat falsely romantic way to describe the Bronze Age.

Of course, metal was not the only material used in Bronze Age Ireland. Stone tools were still very important, and there was a large pottery industry. Beaker pottery - named for its distinctive shape - was very common in Bronze Age Ireland, as it was across much of western and central Europe at the time. Beaker pottery was shaped into more complex shapes than in the Neolithic period, and there were a variety of types of pot. Most are ornately decorated.

The land that had been used in the Neolithic period was the upland areas that had been cleared of forest cover. The lowland areas were still largely forested. However, the end of the Bronze Age seems to have coincided with a general downturn in climatic conditions, bringing wetter and colder conditions to Ireland. Many of the upland areas, already acidifying from over-use, turned into peat-bogs which are very poor agriculturally. Places such as the Ceide Fields, in Mayo, which were arable land in the Neolithic period were covered by the advancing blanket bogs. These blanket bogs had been created on the high land by deforestation and over-grazing, but the wetter weather caused them to extend further downhill. (Prof. Mike Baillie, of Queen's University, Belfast believes that natural disasters caused the climatic downturn. See: http://www.knowledge.co.uk/sis/abstract/baillie.htm.)

At the same time as this, Ireland's population density was rising and this put increased pressure on the land. The only solution was to fell lowland forest, but this required better tools, and the invention of bronze axes came just in time to solve this problem. Thus the Bronze Age in Ireland marks the beginning of the end for Ireland's lowland forests which were systematically cleared over the coming centuries. Many of the myriad of lowland lakes left by the ice age also began to be choked by peat, forming the raised bogs that characterise many parts of lowland Ireland today. As the lakes turned to bog, so the Bronze Age Irish began to build wooden trackways over the bogs, some of which have been found in modern times. A large number of 'hoards' have been found dating from this period - collections of valuables deposited in bogs. The reason why so many people hid their valuables is uncertain, but it is possible that a deteriorating climate may have led to famine and an impulse to hoard valuables. Or perhaps it was simply a custom to place 'offerings' in the bogs.

The limits of the Irish Bronze Age are difficult to state precisely, but is generally accepted to have died away around 500BC when peoples from Europe, belonging to the superior Iron-Age Halstatt culture, arrived in Ireland. The people of this culture are more popularly known as the Celts.

Bronze Age Megaliths and Tombs [1,2,3]

Single Burials: In eastern Ireland, the people moved away from the traditional megalithic types of tomb, which typified the Neolithic, opting instead for simple pits, or cists containing ashes or even skeletons. Hundreds of such cists have been found in all parts of Ireland, dating between 2000 and 1500BC, but their numbers are greater in Ulster and Leinster. Many of these graves have been found with pottery. Some have postulated that society became more egalitarian in this period, resulting in fewer massive burials such as Newgrange.

Wedge Tombs [2kB]Baur South Wedge Tomb [11kB]Wedge Tombs: In the west of Ireland, a new kind of tomb appeared, possibly built by settlers from France who may have been the first of the groups who would become known as the Celts. So-called Wedge Tombs consist of a narrowing stone chamber covered by a mound of earth. The single entrance almost invariably faces south-west. The most common megalithic feature in Ireland, they are found in western Ulster, Connaught and Munster although there is a huge concentration of 120 examples in a small area of northern county Clare. The wedge tombs in Kerry and Cork are the first megaliths to be found in those areas and this is possibly due to the presence of copper ore in that area and subsequent surge in population. Alternatively, as the Wedge Tombs are found primarily in upland areas they may have been the product of a group of pastoralists who grazed flocks on the uplands of western Ireland, before they turned into bog. The picture above shows Baur South wedge tomb [1].

The Giant's Ring, Belfast [11kB]Henges: A henge is an earthen circle, probably used for ceremonial purposes. Sometimes constructed around or beside previous Neolithic megaliths, henges were constructed in Ireland in a broad period beginning around 2000BC. By far the highest concentration is in the Boyne Valley of county Meath, already home to the great passage tombs of Knowth and Newgrange. However there are other examples in counties Roscommon, Sligo, Clare, Limerick, Kildare and Waterford. There is a famous and well-preserved henge called the Giant's Ring at Ballynahatty, on the edge of Belfast in county Down (see picture on right. By Barry Hartwell). Henges were constructed by scraping soil from the centre of the circle to form a ridge all around. These henges can measure 100 to 200 metres (330 to 660 feet) across. Within the henges archaeologists have found the systematically cremated remains of animals as well as evidence of wooden and stone posts. This indicates that henges were centres for a religious cult which had its heyday in the first half of the Bronze Age. Henges are also found in Britain.

Bohonagh Stone Circle [16kB]Stone Circles: Towards the end of the Bronze Age, there appeared another type of ceremonial structure, the Stone Circle. There were constructed in Ireland as well as Britain, and were constructed in large numbers, but mainly concentrated in two small areas. The first is in the Sperrin Mountains of counties Londonderry and Tyrone, while the second is is in the mountains of counties Cork and Kerry. Although both are circles of stone, they are distinctive from one another. The Ulster group are larger, but more irregular and composed of smaller stones. Frequently, a row of stones is set at a tangent to the circle. The most significant example is Beaghmore, near Cookstown in county Tyrone.  In the Munster group, the circles are made from larger stones and are associated with stone rows and standing stones. The purpose of stone circles is almost certainly ceremonial. The picture on the right shows a stone circle at Bohonagh, county Cork (image by Dept of Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht).

External link: The Megalith Map site contains a list of every megalith in the British Isles.

Everyday Life in Bronze Age Ireland [2,3]

Houses: It seems that the Bronze Age Irish lived in houses that were similar to those of the Neolithic; that is, rectangular or circular houses constructed from timber beams with wattle-and-daub walls and thatched roofs made from reeds (there is evidence from Carrigillihy, county Cork that some stone houses may have been built [3], but this seems dubious). The circular houses would have been from 4 to 7 metres (13 to 23 feet) in diameter and supported by a central post. Some other houses may have been constructed from sods of earth placed within a wooden frame. Many houses would have had a circular wooden fence making an enclosure in front of the house. There was sometimes a circular ditch around the whole property which was both defensive and kept animals in.

Cooking: If you look carefully and in just the right places, you may see a horse-shoe shaped mound faintly discernible in an otherwise flat field. If so, there is a good chance that you are looking at a Bronze Age cooking place (fulacht fian in the Irish language). A wood-lined trough was dug in the ground and filled with water. Beside the trough, a fire was lit and stones heated in the fire. These stones were then thrown into the water. Once it was hot enough, meat could be boiled in the water. The broken, used stones were hurled off to one side and formed, over the course of some years, the distinctive horseshow mound. These fulacht fian are very common in Ireland, particularly in the south-west. Experiments have shown that the water can be brought to the boil in 30 minutes by this method, and a 4.5kg leg of mutton was successfully cooked in just under 4 hours. Geoffrey Keating, an historian writing in the 17th century, has first-hand accounts of this method of cooking being used in Ireland as recently as the 1600s AD. His account also seems to suggest that the method was also used to heat water for washing.

Language: We cannot know what language that the Bronze Age people of Ireland spoke. When the Celts arrived in Ireland at the end of the Bronze Age, they brought a central European language with them that must have been heavily influenced by the native language or languages of Ireland. It was these Celtic languages that would be the origins of the modern Irish language. While Bronze Age language would be totally incomprehensible to an Irish speaker of today, it may well be one of its distant roots.

Agriculture: Agriculture continued much as it did in the Neolithic, albeit on a larger scale. More lowland forests were cleared to make farmland which was used for grazing or for growing cerial crops. With the climatic downturn in the Bronze Age, getting a living from the land may have been harder than in the Neolithic. However, the use of metal tools probably offset any disadvantage.

War: As the population grew, the average Bronze Age farmer is likely to have traded with nearby farming communities. However, population pressures may also have sparked off wars between communities. Bronze weapons are the first that seem to have been designed with humans in mind.

Society: Most of what we know about Bronze Age society in Ireland is conjecture. However, it is supposed that the steep social hierarchy of the Neolithic became somewhat more egalitarian, judging from the reduction in extremely large-scale burials. However, the number of items of gold that have been found indicates that there must have been at least some form of an aristocracy.


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[1] A Weir, "Early Ireland: A Field Guide", Blackstaff Press, 1980
[2] G. Stout and M. Stout, writing in the "Atlas of the Irish Rural Landscape", Cork University Press, 1997, pp31-63
[3] P Harbinson: "Pre-Christian Ireland, from the First Settlers to the Early Celts", Thames and Hudson, 1994