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Bronze Age Ireland: Before the Celts

Everyone associates Ireland’s culture and heritage with the Celts. It’s an obvious assumption to make as our language, music, art and sport – amongst other things – have all come directly from this mystical ancient society. Furthermore, they ruled the island of Ireland for around a thousand years, and their legacy was a key factor in the Irish independence movement during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But did you know that the Celts were not the first people to inhabit the island? Ireland has been inhabited by humans since 6000 BC, and the Celts only arrived in 500 BC. So who were the people who came before them, and what were they doing for over 5000 years?

Newgrange Ireland

Ireland’s history can be broken up into various periods, or ages. First was the Mesolithic period, lasting from around 8000 – 4000 BC, when the first evidence of human habitation appears on the island. Between 4000 and 2500 BC was the Neolithic period, when the hunter gatherers of the Mesolithic eras learned to use stone tools and first discovered agriculture. Next came the Bronze Age, from 2500 BC, when the inhabitants first began to use metal to craft tools and objects. The first metal they used was bronze, hence the name ‘Bronze Age’. When the Celts came along 2000 years later, they instigated the Iron Age, and from then on the country’s history becomes a little bit more recognisable!

The Bronze Age is a significant part of Ireland’s history because it was the first time in which humans could mould a material into any shape they wanted. Up until now they had been working with stone, which isn’t the easiest material in the world to work with. As bronze was much stronger and longer lasting than stone, it meant that people’s lives became much more efficient and their activities much more effective. This allowed more time for them to take up other, more creative pursuits, and saw the beginnings of artistic development in this civilisation.

Tools-Ireland

How did the Bronze Age start?

The ancient Irish learned the trick of making bronze from French settlers who crossed the water to meet them. The technology had already been in place for quite some time on the continent, but as Ireland was cut off from the mainland it took a long time for it to reach the small little island off the coast of mainland Europe. The French settlers brought the materials needed for casting simple bronze objects like arrows and taught the Irish the trade. Thankfully, Ireland had a lot of copper deposits, however, they were not in the parts of the island that had been settled so far, leading to the country’s first migrants who set off in search of copper. They found it in Mount Gabriel in county Cork and Ross Island in county Kerry, two of the few known Bronze Age mines in all of Europe.

In those days, people didn’t have to dig very far into the ground to reach the copper – a mere 5 to 10 metres was all it took! The copper ore was extracted from the ground by lighting fires inside the mine and then splashing the walls with water, causing the ore to shatter. Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin however, and there was not nearly as much tin in Ireland as copper. The miners’ solution was to import the tin from across the water in Cornwall, England, which had a plentiful supply, and so the first basic international trade began. It is estimated that around 370 tonnes of copper was extracted from the mines during the Bronze Age, but when all of surviving artefacts are combined with the estimated amount of items lost or destroyed, this still amounts to just 0.2% of the 370 tonnes. For this reason, many historians believe that the majority of the copper mined was exported to Britain and mainland Europe.

Tools-Ireland-1

What was Bronze used for?

Bronze was mostly used to make tools such as axes. When people’s skills in casting became more advanced, the tools they made did too. Initially axe heads were made simply by pouring the molten metal into a stone which had the shape of the axe head hollowed out. When cooled and removed, the head would then be attached to a wooden handle. Later, more complex items like daggers, awls, chauldrons and horns were created using a few different methods. Similar to the carved stone method, two symmetrical stones were placed together with the molten bronze poured into a gap in the top. In other cases wax was used to form the shape of the object required. The wax was encased in clay and the clay was heated so that the wax melted. Bronze was then poured into the clay mould and when cooled, the clay was chipped away to reveal the new bronze object underneath. Other more delicate objects were made by beating sheets of bronze into the required shape.

With the onset of casting tools and the development of society in general, the Bronze Age saw weapons being made for the first time. Daggers and spear heads were particularly popular, with the blades again being attached to wooden handles. Bronze caused more damage and did not require sharpening as often as other materials. On the other hand, many primitive items of jewellery – often bracelets – were made, as well as certain household objects like bowls and vases. Irish craftsmen were particular skilled at making horn shaped trumpets. Bronze Age people had a habit of hiding their valuable bronze (and sometimes gold) objects in boglands, and many artefacts are still turning up today.

Gold Lunulae on display National Museum of Ireland

Bronze Age Life

Bronze Age people lived simple, somewhat primitive lives, although there is evidence that suggests some form of class structure. Gold was obviously a highly prized material and gold objects have been found in the better examples of burial sites. They were also at least partly fashion conscious, as there are early designs and patterns imprinted or incorporated into various bronze items of jewellery. In a contrast of sorts however, this was also the time when people began to move towards a more egalitarian society, with less grand ceremonial or sacred sites.

Image from www.dda.ie

Image from www.dda.ie

Bronze Age people lived in simple wood and clay huts, roofed with reeds, around 5 or 6 metres in diameter. Many had a circular wooden fence forming an enclosure at the front of the house, used both as a defensive measure and for keeping animals from wandering off. They cooked in pits in the ground called ‘fulacht fian’, filled with water that was brought to the boil with hot stones that had been resting in a fire. It sounds unlikely, but experiments have proved that using this method, the water will reach the right temperature in just 30 minutes and a 4.5kg leg of mutton will be cooked through in less than 4 hours.

Agriculture was the primary focus of peoples’ lives as it allowed them to feed themselves and trade certain things with other local farmers. During the Bronze Age lowland forests were cleared to make space for animals to graze or for growing crops. People looked after themselves and their immediate families; there was no ‘class system’ as such, although there were certain people who were more wealthy than others as a result of trading or being celebrated craftsmen.

Burial Tombs and Ceremonial Sites

The practice of burying the dead began in Ireland with the Bronze Age, and is the most significant trace of their lives that remains today after their bronze tools, weapons, and jewellery. The period saw a move away from the megalithic tombs of the previous age, where large stone slabs were placed to form a shelter of sorts for the body, which was then covered with earth. Instead, Bronze Age people usually used one of two types of tomb; a cist tomb, which was a pit dug out of the earth and lined with stone slabs; or a wedge tomb, a much smaller version of a megalithic tomb consisting of a narrowing stone chamber in a wedge shape covered with earth. The tombs usually faced south west and there are many examples all over Ireland that can be visited today. The graves were usually found with pottery inside.

During the Bronze Age people also began to adopt religious beliefs as well as burial rituals. Not much is known about specific beliefs, but there is a lot of evidence to suggest that they held large outdoor ceremonies at certain times of the year. Ceremonies were held in henges (circular areas 100 to 200 metres wide surrounded by an earth ridge) or stone circles with large upright stones placed at intervals to form the circular shape. Cremated remains of animals and humans have been found in both, and in the case of stone circles, a row of stones set at a tangent to the circle often appears too.

Gold-Lunulae-Ireland (2)

Bronze Age Jewellery

Just like today, Bronze Age people often wore jewellery. While nowadays jewellery is more of a fashion accessory than anything else, during this period its primary function was to show off a person’s wealth or status in society. Bronze was already everywhere, however, so the most esteemed people in society actually wore gold jewellery rather than bronze.

Gold-earrings Gold-Lunulae-Ireland (3)

The jewellery that the Bronze Age people wore, however, was nothing like the rings, pendants and earrings that are popular today. One of the most common items was called a lunula, a large crescent shaped collar that was made from very thin and flat sheets of gold that were hammered and cut into shape. They were then decorated with various designs using a technique called repousse; in other words, denting the metal from the back so that the front becomes raised, creating a relief effect. Many also included a chevron (or zig-zag) design that was engraved directly onto the surface. Over 80 examples of lunulae have been found around Ireland.

Although primitive in technique, Bronze Age jewellery is still beautiful to look at. Thankfully, the pieces discovered in bogs around the Irish countryside have stood the test of time very well, and you can see them in the magnificent collection of the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, just as shiny and glittering as they would have been thousands of years ago.

National Museum of Ireland building Kildare St

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