The earlier Bronze Age in Ireland I

Sunday, December 27, 2009



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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