The National Museum of Ireland-Archaeology opened in 1890 and features displays of ancient Ireland from 7000 BCE. In Europe, prehistory (the period before written records) is generally denoted with the Three Age System: Stone Age (which is divided into Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic), Bronze Age, and Iron Age.
This diary will look at some of the displays in the National Museum regarding the Bronze Age and the Iron Age.
The most common tool made from bronze seems to have been the ax. Bronze axes were stronger than those made from copper and could be used for longer periods of time without sharpening. In addition, bronze was used to make a variety of other artifacts, including daggers and awls.
The Period of Metalworking and Beaker Pottery in Ireland dates from 2500 to 2100 BCE. The first metal to be used for tools was copper which is soft and can be easily worked and hardened by hammering. As people realized that making an alloy of copper and tin—known as bronze—would create hard tools, the Bronze Age began to develop.
Ireland has some relatively rich copper deposits and during the Bronze Age, settlements began to develop in these copper-producing areas. By 1500 BCE, the copper mines at Mount Gabriel in County Cork were in operation. These mines consist of 25 fairly shallow shafts, from 5 to 10 meters (16 to 33 feet). The copper was extracted from the shafts by lighting fires which heated the walls of the shaft. Then water was splashed on the hot walls which shattered the ore.
Once the ore had been removed from the mining shafts, it had to be melted. Melting the copper required the burning of about ten tons of dry wood to melt a single ton of copper ore.
While Ireland had copper, it was lacking in the tin which was needed in the production of bronze. For Ireland’s bronze industry, tin appears to have been imported from England.
The early metal users had a distinctive pottery known as Beaker Pottery. The pots were generally made in the form of tall vessels and were often decorated with incised horizontal lines or geometric patterns. Decorations were also made in the pottery by impressing a square-toothed comb, cord, shell, or fingernail into the wet clay surface prior to firing. During this time, beer was introduced to Ireland.
The Beaker Pottery was also used in graves as can be seen in the display shown above.
Shown above is the stone mold for casting bronze tools and the bronze tool made from this mold. During the Bronze Age, the technology for making bronze tools improved. In the Early Bronze Age, the axes were made by pouring bronze into a hollowed out stone. By the Middle Bronze Age, people were using two-part molds: two hollowed stones were put together and metal poured into the gap at the top. This allowed the tool-makers to make more complex items such as daggers. By the Late Bronze Age, people were making models out of wax or fat. Then they would put clay around the model, heat the clay and melt the wax or fat. Then they would pour in the molten bronze and, once it had set, they would chip away the clay.
During the Later Bronze Age (after 900 BCE), cauldrons were made from wood or sheet bronze. The wooden cauldrons were carved from poplar or alder and were used for boiling liquids by adding hot stones. The bronze cauldrons were made by riveting a number of bronze sheets together. The bronze cauldrons could be suspended over a fire and could be used like the wood cauldrons by adding hot stones.
The Irish tales of magical cauldrons may stem from the use of cauldrons in preparing ritual meals. Elaborate fleshhooks were used for the removal of the hot meat and were, therefore, regarded as ritual objects.
Some of the Bronze Age artwork provides some insights into life during this time period.
One of the other interesting bronze artifacts manufactured in Ireland at this time was the horn. About 120 musical horns have been uncovered by archaeologists. Some of these were almost S-shaped and were played so that the curved trumpet part was held above the head and faced the audience.