National Museum of Ireland

Bronze Age Handling Box


What do we know about the likely uses of this Bronze Age object?


The Bronze Age Handling Box contains a replica of a decorated bronze axehead from Brockagh, Co. Kildare. Scroll down to find out more about metalworking 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 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 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.

Exhibition links at the Museum of Archaeology

The original axehead, found in Brockagh, Co. Kildare, is on display 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 Axehead

Enquiry Question

What do we know about the likely uses of this Bronze Age object?

The Bronze Axehead in the Handling Box

The Bronze Age Handling Box contains an exact handcrafted replica of a decorated bronze axehead and its leather sheath found at Brockagh, Co. Kildare.

About the Original Axehead at the Museum of Archaeology

The original artefact is one of the finest examples of a decorated Early Bronze Age axehead. It was discovered buried twelve feet deep in a bog. The axehead was found in a leather sheath, which had a long leather thong attached to it. It is a unique find because it is the only axehead found in Ireland accompanied by its sheath.

The sheath is a tapering container made from a single piece of cowhide, with the hairy side on the inside. It is stitched up the front with a leather thong. It was manufactured at a later date than the axehead, suggesting it may have been created to protect the object.

The original axehead itself is well preserved. It is flat, with slight hammered-up-side-flanges. The cutting edge of the axehead splays widely. The axehead may have been attached to a wooden handle or haft but there is no evidence of this.

The axehead is beautifully decorated. Decoration on the each face of the axe consists of vertical rows of herringbone design, which was likely to have been scored. Hammered decoration in the form of diagonal grooves appears on the side of the axehead. This decoration may be indicative of the axehead representing a status symbol rather that a functional tool.

Due to a prevalence of archaeological finds in wetland areas, it is probable that prehistoric people held a special significance for such places. Beautifully crafted Bronze Age objects, individually or in hoards, have been discovered in bogs. It has been suggested that these are ritual offerings to prehistoric gods. Such objects may have been placed in the bogs at times of social, economic and political upheaval.

Teaching About the Bronze Age Using the Bronze Axehead

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

Key Concepts

  • Tools and Weapons
  • Technology
  • Casting
  • Hafting
  • Moulds
  • Hoards
  • Status

Key Questions

  • What might the original axehead have been used for?
  • Where was it found?
  • Why was this object buried in a bog?
  • How was it made?
  • Why was it decorated?
  • Who might have owned it /used it?

Learning Outcomes

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

  • Know a range of possible uses of the object in the context of the Bronze Age.
  • Demonstrate their understanding of the technology of the Bronze Age axe.
  • Understand the impact of time and environment on past objects and the implications for historical knowledge.
  • Discuss the significance of decorations on objects.

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 Axehead.

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: