Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Ireland’s Bronze Age Gold | Ulster Museum, Belfast | Saturday 31 January 2015


In the middle of December 2014, Robert M. Chapple posted on his blog about an upcoming day of lectures at the Ulster Museum. The title of the seminar itself was very appealing: Ireland’s Bronze Age Gold. Cannot not attract attention with such a title! On a personal note, the whole event was something I felt I had to attend, for three reasons:

1) Despite having lived in Ireland for a decade and a half, I have never travelled ‘up North’
2) As I'm doing a postgraduate degree on exchanges, contacts and relations between Ireland and France during the 3rd Millennium BC (that, of course, includes early metalwork), I could not miss such opportunity
3) We all love prehistoric bling!
The talks were set for Saturday 31 January 2015 and would take place between 1.30pm and 4.15pm. The online program detailed the different parts of the event, which included the three speakers: Greer Ramsay, keeper of the gold collection at the Ulster Museum; Mary Cahill from the National Museum of Ireland; and Richard Warner, former keeper of antiquities at the Ulster Museum. After having booked a free ticket online, all that was left to do, was to wait with expectations for over a month to pass.

Meanwhile, Robert asked if anyone could assume the role of archaeo-journalist as he could not attend personally. I said I would take on the role, but could not promise quality: he was ok with it. Then, still using social networks, it was agreed I would meet that day with two members of the administration of the Seandálaíocht Facebook page, one from Belfast, the other from Dublin. The date was set for a great day and it sure did not disappoint. After having travelled from Cork to Belfast on Friday 30 January and having a short nigh sleep, the next morning was full of promises. It was chilly, but the sun was out and the coffee was steaming hot. So, a quick tour of the outside of the aesthetically pleasing main buildings of Queen’s University Belfast, set with the beautiful background of the snow-capped hills north-west of the city, I was off for a tour on my own of the Ulster Museum. Great place, interesting displays, wonderful artefacts. The prehistoric section, of course, got my full attention. It was nice to be able to appreciate objects that I have only read about or seen in pictures before (the Malone Hoard of polished stone axeheads is very impressive ‘in the flesh’). Anyway, enough about me.

After having wandered around for nearly two hours, it was time to meet my colleagues. A quick trip to the Palm House in the Botanic Gardens to warm up, then off to the lecture theatre for the talk. The place was not full, but between 100 and 150 people turned up (only 12 according to the police). Everyone appeared to be in the mood for a good time, and the crowd ranged from teenagers with adults, to seniors.

Greer Ramsey introduced the proceedings and its content. The title did not lie, the subject was gold from the Bronze Age in Ireland. Simple. He quickly discussed the vast amount of artefacts made out of the precious metal, which can be found in both the UM and the NMI. He also explained what was ‘treasure’ and the legislation behind the discovery and declaration of finds, including some extracts from the Historic Monuments and Archaeological Objects Order 1995 (Northern Ireland); the Treasure Act 1996; and the NI Code of Practice 2002.

Then, the first talk was actually a piece of television. An episode of a series of documentaries called Landscape Mysteries from 2003 and hosted by Aubrey Manning, was projected on the big screen, which discussed the potential sources of gold for prehistoric Irish metalworkers [here]. The video included the usual suspects of sources: the Avoca region and the hills of the Wicklow/Wexford border, Croagh Patrick in County Mayo and the Sperrin Mountains of County Tyrone. If you watch the video, check out the gold panning and use of a sheep’s hide, to collect the heavy but tiny gold crumbs from a stream in the Avoca area – it’s very interesting. To discuss the substantial amount of gold artefacts from this period also, the famous Mooghaun Hoard from County Clare was mentioned. This hoard is a good example of the attractive nature gold has on human beings. It was discovered in the 19th century during the construction of a railway. Basically, many workers filled their pockets with Late Bronze Age gold before the find was finally reported. Many of the stolen artefacts made their way to jewellery workshops. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.

After the movie, Greer Ramsey discussed the wonderful Corrard Torc (see Ramsey 2013) Dated to between circa 1300 and 1100 BC, the twisted and coiled gold torc was discovered at Corrard near the shores of Upper Lough Erne, Co. Fermanagh. The object is made of a thin cross-section with four flanges, which were then twisted before being, probably, deposited into the wet area. Such torcs from this period are rare finds in Ireland, but large numbers have been recorded in southern England and across the Channel, which indicates long distance contact. The fact that the torc was coiled appears to show a sort of decommissioning of the object, a common occurrence of metal objects during the Bronze and Iron Age. Greer also discussed such evidence of decommissioning with a similar example from northern France, at Guînes, Pas-de-Calais, where tiny gold pins were inserted into the coils of the twisted gold to make it unusable for eternity. After this interesting talk about a personal ornament, a break was welcome, when we could all refill on caffeine, fresh air and nicotine levels.

The second round began with Mary Cahill and her lecture entitled Prehistoric Irish gold: new finds, new interpretations. She opened quickly by mentioning that, around 60 objects have been acquired by both the NMI and UM between 1990 and 2014. She then discussed in great detail the rather extraordinary recovery of a lunula and two sun-discs that were stolen in 2009 from a pharmacy at Strokestown, Co. Roscommon. The whole story is rather amusing, and despite the seriousness of the situation, she managed to describe the recovery in an entertaining and engaging way. Short overview: In 2009, two robbers broke-in to a chemist shop in Strokestown. They managed to open the safe, grabbed anything they could inside it (mostly paperwork) and legged it. The two thieves were later caught and eventually convicted. Meanwhile, members of the family who owned the pharmacy contacted authorities regarding some gold objects that were amongst the paperwork. They were described as a flat crescent-shaped ornaments and two small discs. Once the NMI was contacted, they went looking for the objects. After being informed were the documents have been thrown away, a lunula and the gold discs were found at the bottom of a skip in Dublin. The museum then went all CSI on the paper envelop in which the objects have been placed; ink impressions and a bit of digital technology later, they were able to identify the original place of discovery. They were found in a bog at Coggalbeg, Co. Roscommon, and placed into the safe in 1947. This hoard is regarded by the NMI as the most important Early Bronze Age hoard found in Ireland since the 19th century.

Cahill then went on to discuss the chronology and a possible interpretation of meaning for lunulae and gold discs. Lunulae have never been found in association with other metal objects in Ireland allowing for cross-dating. However, one was found in a wooden box that has been radiocarbon dated to c. 2000 BC. Also, sun-discs are thought to date to the Early Bronze Age, from around 2300-2200 BC. A fresh interpretation for the joined use of lunulae with sun-discs was put forward. The discs could be laid within the inside gap of a lunula and represent the sun being carried across the sky in a boat. This idea of the sun being moved or pulled across the sky is a recurrent concept and has already been suggested from a few of the sun-discs discovered on the Continent, such as the Nebra Sky Disc from Germany (Pic.1) and the Trundholm Sun Chariot (Pic.2).

Picture 1: the Nebra Sky Disc, Germany

Picture 2: the Trundholm Charriot Disk, Denmark

Then, more recent finds were discussed, but this time for artefacts dated to the Late Bronze Age. A case study was presented, regarding a hoard from Ballinesker, County Wexford. The context is unknown, as the objects were discovered on a spoil heap on a private property. It consisted of three dress fasteners and four ear-pieces. Two ear-pieces were small box like ornaments and he two others were bobbins. In comparison, modern pictures of enlarged ear-lobes from cultures from all over the world show similar objects worn, still being put sometimes as part of a rite of passage. Looks painful. Next, the subject was a small ornament called a bulla from Inch, Co. Down. Bullae are very small ornaments which were highly decorated, with concentric circles, tiny gold threads and pins. Five are in the collection of the National Museum of Ireland, one from the Ulster Museum and one from the British Museum. The objects consist of a core made of either clay or lead which was then covered with gold. Their use is unclear, but the name itself is Latin for ‘bubble’ and some have been found in Etruscan and Roman contexts on the Continent, used to make necklaces. Finally, Cahill discussed a hoard from Dooyork, Co. Mayo, which was made of a twisted ribbon torc and amber beads. Metal analysis have revealed that, the level of gold in this type of torc was much lower than during the Early Bronze Age, and actually date to the Iron Age, suggesting different gold sources depending on the period. Also, similar examples have been discovered in Scotland, but also in south-western France too, in the Toulouse area. Once again, evidence of pan-European contacts.

To end, the last talk was given by Richard Warner. The subject was a sort of combination of what happened before hand. Warner discussed The Prehistoric Irish Gold Project, which involves XRF analyses of gold artefacts and comparison with known sources. The NMI has, so far, analysed over 400 objects using this technique. The basic principle is to see the composition of the metal, which contains around 88% of gold, 11.3% silver and 0.07% copper (Au>Ag>Cu) for Early Bronze Age gold. Then, moving chronologically, levels of silver and copper augmented during the Middle and Late Bronze Age and the Iron Age. Not only is this technique important to determine sources, it also protects museums from acquiring fake artefacts. Modern fakes are made of gold not identified amongst Irish sources. Analyses from the UM collection have revealed that, around one quarter of the artefacts are fake.

The actual sources were discussed afterwards. Over 100 streams have been analysed across Ireland, including the recognised gold-producing regions discussed above. Lunulae had been chosen to identify one of the sources exploited during the Early Bronze Age (see Warner et al. 2009). Once again, the silver and copper contents would be indicative of the origin of the metal. Most lunulae contained about 10% silver, so the south-east part of the country was rapidly dismissed as a possible source. Other areas such as the Wicklow Mountains and the Dublin region, as well as the south Mayo-north Galway zone were rejected. However, the metal matches the fingerprint of gold from the Mourne Mountains, which is a rather important breakthrough since up until recently, many scholars believed the gold originated in Cornwall. This was suggested as analyses carried out during the 1960s and 70s, showed a high content of tin within the gold of lunulae, hence the supposed Cornish origin. Recent surveys have confirmed, however, that, tin is also present in the Mourne Mountains. As well, recent surveying at Knockshee and the Ballincurry River in the same area has identified trench-working like features, which are similar to features in Cornwall and Devon. During the Late Bronze Age, other sources were identified. A hoard from Cathedral Hill, Downpatrick, Co. Down was revealed to have been made of gold from Portugal, so, we know that it was a commodity exchanged and reused. During this period, however, local gold was used to make objects for the local people. A penannular ring found at the large hillfort at Rathgall, Co. Wicklow, was made of gold coming from … the Wicklow area.

To summarise, the day of lectures was very informative about the sources of gold in Ireland. It was presented in an effective and friendly manner. I was pleased to hear about the Mourne Mountains as a probable source of gold for lunulae found in Ireland. Some found in Britain and northern France may have been produced with Cornish metal, but these Irish-made (or Irish-inspired) artefacts surely originated somewhere in Ireland by goldsmiths familiar with the Mourne Mountains during the Early Bronze Age.

Finally, go raibh mile maith agat to Robert Chapple for drawing my attention to this lecture, and to both Belfast and the Ulster Museum which proved to be very welcoming to me.

Further reading
Ramsey, G. 2013. ‘A twisted torc’ Archaeology Ireland 27(3), 26-27.


Warner, R., Chapman, R., Cahill, M., & Moles, N. 2009. ‘The gold-source found at last?’ Archaeology Ireland 23(2), 22-25.