National Museum of Ireland

Bronze Age Handling Box

The Bronze Age in Ireland

The Irish Bronze Age

Please scroll down to learn more about the Early, Middle and Late Bronze Age in Ireland.

Introduction to the Bronze Age in Ireland

The Irish Bronze Age dates from approximately 2500 BC to 500BC. The period is characterised by the wealth of new, innovative and exciting metalworking techniques. The population of Bronze Age Ireland was highly organised.

Archaeological discoveries from this period include domestic sites (fulacht fiadh, enclosures and campsites), burials (wedge tombs, ringbarrows, cists and flat cemeteries) and ritual monuments (henges, hillforts, timber circles and cursus monuments). Sacred landscapes such as bogs, pools, caves, coastal sites, river fords and mountain tops, were the settings for communal activities. These activities included the burial of hoards of weapons, jewellery or tools and other votive offerings like bog bodies, bog butter, weapons and vessels deposited as offerings to the gods. These artefacts offer an insight into the complex and ritualistic aspects of Bronze Age Ireland.

Archaeologists divide the Bronze Age into three periods: Early, Middle and Late. These divisions are founded on the advancement of technological and cultural developments.

  • Early Bronze Age

    Early Bronze Age began in Ireland in approximately 2500BC. This period saw the introduction of several significant innovations, most notably the development of metalworking. Copper and gold were amongst the earliest metals used. Bronze, a mixture of tin and copper, gradually became a fashionable choice for metalworkers. It was a highly durable metal. Copper and tin were highly prized and costly commodities. Access to these materials was probably confined to elite sections of society. Certain metalwork and pottery was used to display rank and status within communities. Flint scrapers, knives, and polished stone axes continued in daily use.

    Between the years 2500 BC and 2200 BC, a type of megalithic tomb known as ‘wedge tomb’ was used for burial. In varying forms, this was the main burial rite for the next 1000 years. From 2200 BC onwards, this was gradually replaced by smaller separate burial places. Cist burials were unburnt inhumations placed in stone lined graves with artefacts like pottery and tools of flint or metal. Older customs were not entirely abandoned. Passage tombs and court cairns were still considered sacred sites. These were occasionally reused as burial places.

  • Middle Bronze Age

    The Middle Bronze Age saw the continuous development of metalworking techniques. Metalworkers continued to thrive and develop better moulding techniques for artefacts such as axeheads. Other craftworkers introduced new techniques of weaving, leather working and wood working. Some of the finest examples of goldworking in Europe emerged from the workshops of Irish Bronze Age craftworkers, leaving a rich legacy in what is known as the first golden age of Irish archaeology.

  • Late Bronze Age

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

    By the Late Bronze Age there is clear evidence for the existence of individual farmsteads with a dwelling house. In some instances there were small associated structures, such as open air hearths or rubbish pits. Sites were built in lakes or on lakeshores and therefore were protected by water; dryland sites had only limited protection, such as a shallow ditch or a palisade. Cremations were a popular burial practice in the later Bronze Age. The burnt bones were often placed within a food vessel. Occasionally this vessel was inverted, or turned upside down in the burial site.

    A common ritualistic practice in the later Bronze Age was the deposition of hoards in sacred places. These hoards may have represented votive offerings to gods or have been left for safekeeping, or a mixture of both. Bogs have proven to be a rich source of Bronze Age artefacts, with the anaerobic environment preserving even organic material. An exceptional example of a hoard from Dowris, Co. Offaly can be seen in the Museum of Archaeology. It comprises of approximately 218 objects and includes swords, spearheads, axes, gouges, knives, razors, cauldrons, buckets, horns, crotals and other miscellaneous objects.

The Bronze Age Handling Box Resource Project was developed by: