National Museum of Ireland

Bronze Age Handling Box


What kind of society is likely to have produced spearheads?


The Bronze Age Handling Box contains a replica of a bronze spearhead from Rathgarret, Co. Westmeath. Scroll down to find out more about weaponry in Bronze Age Ireland.

The Development of Metalworking During the Bronze Age

The Bronze Age takes its name from the development of metalworking techniques. Bronze, an alloy of tin and copper, became a popular choice of material for metalworkers during this period. Stone implements such as axes and knives still continued in use. Their replacement by metal tools was probably a long and gradual process.

  • Moulding and Casting

    Bronze Age metal tools were formed using moulds to shape the molten metal into the desired form. The technology for moulding bronze improved through the Bronze Age. Initially, items were cast by pouring the melted bronze into hollowed out stone moulds. By the Middle Bronze Age, people had invented two part moulds, where two hollowed stones were put together and metal was poured into a gap at the top. This allowed for sophisticated objects like axes and spearheads to be produced. By the end of the Bronze Age, metalsmiths were making wax or fat models of what they wanted to cast, putting clay around them and then heating the clay to melt the wax. The melted metal was then poured in and once set, the clay was chipped away. Examples of such moulds are on display in the ‘Prehistoric Ireland’ exhibition at the Museum.

  • Late Bronze Age Weaponry

    The Late Bronze Age saw a change in the Irish climate with a prevalence of wetter and colder conditions. Archaeologists believe this may have impacted heavily on the agricultural economy in Ireland with bogs expanding and the countryside becoming more heavily forested. Large amounts of weaponry dating from the Late Bronze Age have been discovered in Ireland. This weaponry (swords, spears, rapiers, knives,dirks, halberds) found in hoards may indicate a rise in warfare between communities.

Exhibition links at the Museum of Archaeology

The original spearhead, found in Rathgarret, Co. Westmeath, is on display in the ‘Finds from Irish Wetlands’ exhibition. This small exhibition features a selection of finds from Irish wetlands including more than 800 reports related to discoveries. Spearheads are also found in the ‘Prehistoric Ireland’ exhibition which traces the story of Ireland’s first inhabitants through the Mesolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Age.

Bronze Age Handling Box – Bronze Spearhead

Enquiry Question

What kind of society is likely to have produced spearheads?

The Bronze Spearhead in the Handling Box

The Bronze Age Handling Box contains a replica of a Bronze Spearhead from Rathgarret, Co. Westmeath.

About the Original Spearhead at the Museum of Archaeology

The original spearhead dates from approximately 1000 BC. It is currently on display in the ‘Finds from Irish Wetlands’ exhibition at the Museum. The spearhead was discovered buried seven feet deep in a bog. It is a good example of the type of spearhead which was widely used in Ireland during the Late Bronze Age.

The Function

Spearheads were weapons. Weapons could be used in battle, as signs of display of status or as ritual objects. To use effectively it was necessary to mount the spearhead on a long wooden shaft. It was tied securely to the shaft using the loopheads.

The Development

Earlier spearheads were flat daggerlike blades with a tang, which could not be mounted easily on a wooden shaft. Later, conical shafts and side loops were introduced into the design of weapons to ensure the weapon stayed on its shaft. In the case of some axes, the object evolved from initially having side supports or flanges to being bagshaped or hollow to allow a wooden shaft to be inserted. Large amounts of weaponry dating to the Late Bronze Age have been discovered in Ireland. On display at the Museum are various artefacts associated with Bronze Age weaponry such as leather and bronze shields, swords and daggers.

Hoards and Weapons

A number of weaponry hoards dating from the Bronze Age have been discovered. The best known example is the Dowris Hoard (approximately 218 objects which include swords, spearheads, axes, gouges, knives, razors, cauldrons, buckets, horns, crotals and other miscellaneous objects). It is thought that this hoard may have been collected over time throughout the Late Bronze Age before being deposited as an offering to a prehistoric god. These artefacts may be indicative of a period of turmoil and warfare.

Teaching About the Bronze Age Using the Bronze Spearhead

There are Key Concepts, Key Questions and Learning Outcomes for a range of activities related to the Bronze Spearhead objects. These resources and activities can be downloaded for use in the classroom.

Key Concepts

  • Late Bronze Age
  • Weapons
  • Warfare
  • Climate
  • Moulds
  • Hoards

Key Questions

  • How was a spearhead used?
  • Who might have used it?
  • Why might it have been used?
  • Are there others like it?
  • What does it suggest about the Late Bronze Age?
  • The original spearhead is on display at the Museum of Archaeology. Where was this spearhead found?

Learning Outcomes

On completion of these activities the students at Senior Primary and Junior Cycle levels will be able to:

  • Explain how climate and changing resources affected human behaviour in the past.
  • Identify the stages involved in the journey from the discovery of objects to their display in a museum exhibition.

Activities & Resources

Specific activities have been created for each Handling Box object. Scroll down to view the activities and the accompanying teachers’ resources for the Bronze Spearhead.

Generic Resources have also been created for use with all replica objects and raw material in the Bronze Age Handling Box. Click here to view these resources.

Education Centres have a Bronze Age Handling Box which can go out on loan (subject to terms and conditions) to primary and post primary schools. Contact your local Education Centre for more information.

The Bronze Age Handling Box Resource Project was developed by: