The earlier Bronze Age in Ireland II

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Stone circle at Beaghmore.
Recent re-examination of the cemeteries indicates a predominance of male burials suggesting a stratified society in which not everyone was accorded the formal rite of cist or pit burial. The rich burial of a young teenage male at Tara, complete with a necklace of jet, amber, bronze, and faience and a bronze dagger and awl, demonstrates, for example, that for some aristocracy was a birthright. Further indication of the wealth to which people might aspire, and the international tenor of the trappings of status, is seen in the corpus of sheet goldwork which includes 85 crescentic gold collars or lunulae, 20 decorated sun-discs, and 2 basketshaped earrings: all types known from Britain and indeed further afield. No doubt bronze objects, such as axes, halberds, and, as we have seen, daggers, belonged to only the richest in society. All that glitters is not gold!

Funerals represented only one facet of ritual activity during the 2nd millennium bc. Communal ceremonial monuments were also created. Although many of these have associated burials, it seems that this was not their primary role, instead the burials may have connected, symbolically, the cycle of human life and death with the cosmological order. In addition to the large embanked enclosures, or henges, which continued to be used into the first few centuries of the second millennium bc, smaller henges and hengiform barrows now appeared throughout the country (indeed, as we shall see, in Ireland the tradition of defining sacred space with a hengiform enclosure continued in various guises into the 1st millennium ad). And, whereas previously henges might have been associated with timber circles and temples, during the 2nd millennium these circles were increasingly made from stone, a development exemplified in the case of Newgrange where the massive pit circle once attached figure-of-eight style to the site was replaced by a great stone circle encircling the mound itself. By their very nature, stone circles are difficult to date but appear to have been built throughout the 2nd millennium bc. Major concentrations occur in Ulster and Munster, with over 90 examples recorded in Cos. Cork and Kerry alone where the dominant type is the ‘recumbent’ circle. Such circles, consisting of five or more stones, are entered between two matching portal stones, the largest in the circle, on the opposing side of which lies the recumbent or axial stone. The axis between the portals and recumbent stone is consistently aligned south-west/north-east, i.e. on the rising and setting sun. Few circles have been excavated. At Drombeg, Co. Cork, five pits were uncovered in the central area. One contained the cremated remains of an adolescent and a sherd of coarse pottery which yielded a date of 1124–794 bc. Similar ‘token’ deposits of cremated human bone were uncovered at Bohonagh and Reanascreena, Co. Cork, and at Cashelkeelty, Co. Kerry. Some of these circles appear to be associated with stone alignments, that is rows of standing stones that can stretch for considerable distances across the countryside.

Analysis has demonstrated that many alignments ‘point’ towards important solar and lunar positions or to places where sun and geography combine to curious affect, as at Lough Inagh, Co. Galway, where the alignment points to a corrie that is illuminated by the last rays of the setting sun during the winter solstice. Alignments may also have defined territorial boundaries across large tracts of open countryside. As in Munster, the stone circles of Ulster are also associated with stone alignments, and this is nowhere better illustrated than at Beaghmore, Co. Tyrone, where seven circles and at least eight alignments comprise one of the most enigmatic archaeological landscapes in Ireland. Unlike the Munster circles, these northern specimens consist of vast quantities of small, portable stones arranged in concentric circles and radial lines. A spectacular group has recently been exposed in cut-away peat at Copney Hill, about 11 km from Beaghmore.

Pollen evidence tells us that these people lived in a still largely forested environment, practising agriculture in clearings on lighter, drier soils, although a general increase in ash from about 2300 bc suggests that forests were lighter than previously. Throughout the course of the 2nd millennium there was progressively more settlement on the uplands. It has been argued that in such a context agriculture was merely an adjunct to the exploitation of the greater ecosystem. So, while the underlying trend is of a steady increase in arable agriculture and increasing reliance on farm produce, the macrofossil evidence indicates that substantial quantities of wild foods continued to be collected. Movement was along trails and droveways and, over boggy ground, on wooden trackways such as those uncovered at Corlea and Annaghbeg, Co. Longford. There are very few settlement sites of the period. Most consist of habitation deposits uncovered during the excavation of multi-period sites with few or no surviving structural remains. A series of possible postholes at Monknewtown, Co. Meath, has been speculatively reconstructed as the outline of a conical, wigwam-type house. There is evidence, however, that the first fulachta fiadh date from around 2300 bc. These are cooking pits where meat was broiled in water-filled, sunken wooden troughs, brought to the boil by having hot stones dropped in. Over 2,000 are known throughout the country and they are an important indicator of the whereabouts of Bronze Age settlement. What are to all intents and purposes identical installations are described in documentary sources of the early medieval period, suggesting extraordinary longevity.

Until recent radiocarbon programmes began to push forward the dates of stone circles and alignments and pull back the dates of fulachta fiadh and widely spaced multivallate hillforts, the archaeology of Middle Bronze Age Ireland (c.1500–900 bc) was dominated by artefact studies. Substantive technological advancements, such as the development of sockets, were made during these centuries. A unique set of stone moulds from Killymaddy, Co. Antrim, bear the matrices of socket-looped spearheads and a dirk or rapier, the first of such weapons in the Irish arsenal, along with tanged knives and a sickle. The problems of mounting a flat axe were overcome by creating axes with side flanges and a stop-ridge which ultimately led to the development of the palstave, principally a woodworker’s tool, which was produced in huge numbers. Indeed, the whole bronze industry had moved onto an altogether more industrial plane, though unfortunately most of the vast quantity of Middle Bronze Age metalwork comprises stray finds. Significant percentages of these, however, come from wet contexts and this suggests that many were votive deposits, with an apparent preference for rivers over and above lakes and bogs. The tools of the bronzesmith’s trade are preserved in a slightly later hoard from Bishopsland, Co. Kildare, and these include among other things a double-sided saw, an anvil, a selection of chisels, bronze socketed hammers, and a vice. This hoard connects the Irish bronze industry with the so-called Taunton Phase of the British Bronze Age, dated to between 1350 and 1200 bc. In addition to the new tool and weapon types, new types of jewellery appeared also, including a variety of twisted gold torcs, or neckrings, and similarly made earrings. Most common, however, are penannular bronze bracelets.

The dearth in burials of this period is compensated for, in some measure, by numerous recent discoveries of settlement sites. At both Ballyveelish (c.1130–810 bc) and Chancellorsland, Co. Tipperary, the habitation area was located within a large oval enclosure (both around 40 m × 30 m) and this suggests that other enclosures of the same size and shape might also date from this period. Although no house structures survived in the excavated part of the Ballyveelish enclosure, a considerable amount of pottery and organic refuse was recovered from the surrounding ditch. Cattle accounted for 43 per cent of the livestock, pig nearly 36 per cent, and sheep/goat 17 per cent, the remainder comprising horse, dog, and red deer. Slaughter patterns suggest that the cattle were reared primarily for beef. Barley and wheat were also grown. The pottery consisted of plain coarse, flat-bottomed ware, probably used for cooking, a type that would dominate the domestic scene until at least the 4th century bc. At Chancellorsland a succession of small oval and sub-rectangular huts was uncovered. Again, there was excellent survival of organic material in the fosse. House plans were also uncovered at Curraghatoor, Co. Tipperary, Lough Gur, Co. Limerick, and Carrigillihy, Co. Cork, and these consist of relatively small circular or oval shaped dwellings around 5 m or 6 m in diameter with walls that are likely to have been of wicker, possibly covered in clay daub or animal skins. At Lough Gur pig dominated the faunal assemblage, with cattle coming in at around 38 per cent. Tillage was also important as attested at Belderg, Co. Mayo, where Caulfield uncovered ‘lazybeds’ in a field system associated with a small round house. With an economy so rooted in the land, O’Sullivan has suggested that wetlands sites, such as those uncovered at Cullyhanna Lough, Co. Armagh, and Lough Eskragh, Co. Tyrone, might only have been seasonally occupied, thus accounting for their comparatively small assemblages.

The earlier Bronze Age in Ireland I

Copper mine on Ross Island, Killarney
On Ross Island, Killarney, Co. Kerry, O’Brien has uncovered the oldest known copper mine in north-western Europe, dating from between 2400 and 2000 bc. Here, arsenical copper was mined from short shafts tunnelled more or less vertically from the surface. Inside these cramped tunnels fires were lit to fracture the parent rock which was then dislodged using stone mauls or hammer stones. It is very difficult to estimate how much ore was extracted from Ross Island, or indeed Mount Gabriel, Co. Cork, which was exploited between about 1700 and 1500 bc, but the work was clearly labour intensive and the resultant copper extremely valuable. Tin may have been mined across the country in Wicklow, or might have been imported from Cornwall in south-west Britain. Combined, these two metals produced bronze.

Associated with the copper mine on Ross Island was Beaker pottery, a fine, often highly decorated, flat-bottomed drinking vessel which is irregularly distributed throughout western Europe where it has a recurring association with the first use of metal. Consequently, the Ross Island assemblage is central to the question of how knowledge of metallurgy first arrived in Ireland. The traditional view connects the spread of the use of copper with ‘Beaker Folk’ whose migrations were revealed in the distribution of their distinctive material assemblage (which includes conical, V-perforated buttons, barbed and tanged arrowheads, and stone archers’ wristguards) and the appearance of copper metallurgy among the furthest outposts of north-western Europe. Many scholars today, however, question the plausibility of such folk movements. Emphasizing the regional diversities throughout north-west Europe in the Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age, they suggest that rather than people, what spread was a new concept in social organization: the distinctive artefacts are simply internationally recognized symbols of social status. Accordingly, they would argue that the technical know-how required to mine and process copper, and later (c.2200 bc) bronze, could have been passed on by word of mouth along traditional Late Neolithic trade routes.

In Ireland Beaker pottery is often associated with Wedge tombs, built between about 2300 and 2000 bc. Along with embanked enclosures and stone and timber henges, they represent the earliest elements in the lexicon of ritual architecture in Bronze Age Ireland that, over the course of a thousand years, came to include Single Burials, cemetery mounds, standing stones, stone alignments and stone circles, boulder burials, and rock art. With the relative dearth of settlement sites these confusing and often enigmatic monuments have come to dominate our analyses and perception of this period. Though Wedge tombs, of which just over 500 examples are known, are the most numerous Irish megalithic tombs, their origins are shrouded in obscurity. While sharing certain characteristics with Neolithic tombs, their closest parallels are with the allées couvertes of north-western France, and so a connection with that area cannot be ruled out. Wedge tombs have a decidedly western distribution, with notable concentrations in south-western and northern Munster and again along a band curving from north Mayo and Sligo across south Tyrone and into east Donegal. This contrasts with the generally more eastern distribution of the Single Burial tradition of pit and cist burials and introduces the possibility of distinct socio-cultural provinces in early Bronze Age Ireland. Analysis of the mutually distinct Wedge tombs and Single Burials in Munster, for example, suggests to O’Brien that Wedge tomb builders controlled access to ores and distribution of metal, which their Single Burial neighbours in central and eastern Munster could only acquire through barter. Such monopolies led to the emergence of what are known as ‘Big Man’ elites, while down-the-line exchange gave rise to specialized middlemen who must have played a pivotal role in the acquisition of tin, which was not available in Munster.

From the outset (c.2350 bc) there was tremendous variability among the Single Burials which outlasted the use of Wedge tombs by some centuries. During this time the accompanying bowl- and vase-shaped funerary vessels developed from grave good to urn. As the name implies, Bowls are essentially round-bellied pots, highly decorated with impressed and incised ornament that owes much of its inspiration to the Beaker tradition. They are found mainly in the north and east of the country and so complement the distribution of Wedge tombs. The vast majority occur in small, stone-lined cists and more than half accompanied cremated burials. Occasionally, other artefacts such as plano-convex flint knives, leaf-shaped arrowheads, and polished stone artefacts have been found along with Bowls and at Corkey, Co. Antrim, and Carrickinab, Co. Down, riveted bronze daggers were also found. Miniature Bowls (sometimes called Pygmy Cups) are also known. The contemporary Vase Tradition is characterized by tapered bi- and tripartite pots, 11 to 16 cm tall. Handmade, they too are highly decorated and although they share the same northern and eastern distribution, there is a significant grouping in Galway and Mayo. Most Vases have been found with cremated burials and the range of associated grave goods compares to that accompanying Bowls. From around 1900 bc we see the emergence from the indigenous Vase Tradition of two types of large funerary pot (i.e. up to 40 cm tall), the Vase Urn and the Encrusted Urn, types which feature in the burial tradition for about two centuries. They share the stage with two British-inspired urn types, the impressive Cordoned and Collared Urns.

Cordoned Urns are found in simple pits, inverted over the cremated remains of the dead (usually one individual, sometimes more) which were presumably sealed in place with a cloth before the pot was turned upside down. They occur in the east of the country with a particular concentration in the north-east. Associated finds include exotica, such as small oval-shaped bronze knives or razors, which may be symbols of masculinity, and beads of faience, a blue vitreous paste, originating in the Near East. However, the most impressive artefacts to have been found with Cordoned Urns are the so-called battleaxes. Beautifully carved, waisted, and perforated, these stone axes were clearly for ceremonial use and, like the urns, originate in Scotland. Sixty or so burials with Collared Urns have been found in Ireland and these date from between 2000 and 1500 or 1400 bc. Concentrated in the north-east, they too are most frequently found in simple pits, associated grave goods being quite rare. There are noteworthy exceptions, however, as at the Mound of the Hostages, Tara, Co. Meath, where a battleaxe and a riveted bronze dagger were found with a Collared Urn and an inverted Vase.

The forty-plus burials in the Mound of the Hostages at Tara comprise a cemetery mound. As at Tara and Baunogenasraid, Co. Carlow, occasionally Neolithic tumuli were reused as cemetery mounds during the earlier Bronze Age but in other cases, such as at Knockast, Co. Westmeath, new mounds were built. Flat cemeteries are evidently far more difficult to recognize and are usually found by chance during ploughing. Consequently, there has been little concerted excavation of such sites. At Urbalreagh, Co. Antrim, three burials were demarcated by a small penannular ditch. A similar ring-ditch was excavated at Ballyveelish, Co. Tipperary, and was found to encircle a porched mortuary house in the centre of which was a polygonal cist containing the remains of two adults, a young teenager, and two children, as well as an Encrusted Urn and two Pygmy Cups. Many such ring-ditches date from the earlier Bronze Age, though as a type simple ring-ditches were built throughout prehistory. Burials such as those at Tara and the Bowl burial at Knockaulin represent one aspect of the continuing investment into complexes that would, in time, become the royal sites of later prehistoric and early historic Ireland.

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