National Museum of Ireland

Bronze Age Handling Box


What can this object tell us about economic activity in the Bronze Age?


The Bronze Age Handling Box contains a fragment of sheepskin. Scroll down to find out more about the significance of sheep in Bronze Age Ireland.

Farming in Prehistoric Ireland

Farming was introduced into Ireland from Europe during the Neolithic period (c. 3700 BC). Farming in Ireland was 'mixed'. This meant that people kept domesticated animals, such as cattle, sheep, goats and pigs, and also grew crops such as barley and wheat. This tradition of farming was maintained in the Bronze Age.

  • The Significance of Sheep During the Bronze Age

    Sheep had varied uses for Bronze Age farmers. Domesticated sheep were sources of meat and dairy products. Byproducts such as bones, hides and wool were also valuable commodities. The hide, once removed from the animal, could provide warmth in the form of clothing or coverings. It was also used to make tents and containers. Flint scrapers were used to clean the skin. Curing agents, like ochre, grit and urine, may have been added. These would help keep the hide supple and vermin-free.

  • Panning for Gold

    Sheepskin may have been used as natural sieves to help collect gold or to pan for gold. Panning was the primary technique used to collect these gold deposits.

    One of the main sources of gold available to goldsmiths was from alluvial deposits. These small pieces of gold were found in the riverbed. Weathering of the bedrock caused gold to be displaced and washed down rivers and streams. There is evidence that panning alluvial gold was the primary source of gold in the Early Bronze Age. The Middle and Late Bronze Age also saw gold mined in a similar fashion to copper.

    Metalworkers used gold from the beginning of the Early Bronze Age to craft beautiful objects such as lunalae, gold discs and torcs.

    In the Early Bronze Age objects (basketshaped earrings, gold discs and lunulae) were simply produced by hammering small ingots or nuggets into thin sheets of beaten gold. These were then cut or trimmed to various shapes. The crescent shaped neck ornament known as the lunula is perhaps the most characteristic Early Bronze Age sheet gold object.

Exhibition links at the Museum of Archaeology

A sheepskin is on display in the 'Ór – Ireland's Gold' exhibition which displays Bronze Age gold, one of the most important gold collections in Europe.

The Museum of Archaeology houses the largest collection of Irish lunulae in the world with 50 examples in the collection. Larger amounts of gold were available during the Middle and Late Bronze Age, hence increasing the production of gold objects.

Bronze Age Handling Box – Sheepskin

Enquiry Question

What can this object tell us about economic activity in the Bronze Age?

The Bronze Age Handling Box contains a piece of sheepskin, similar to one used during the Bronze Age.

Teaching About the Bronze Age Using Sheepskin

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

Key Concepts

  • Mixed Farming
  • Curing Hide
  • Primary and Secondary Products
  • Panning

Key Questions

  • How can this object help us to think about life in Ireland during the Bronze Age?
  • Were sheep important to the Bronze Age economy?
  • What do finds of gold objects tell us about Bronze Age communities?
  • What kind of skills and talents were needed to make gold objects?

Learning Outcomes

On completion of these activities the students will be enabled to:

  • Know that mixed farming was characteristic of the Bronze Age and the varied uses of animals, not just as a food source.
  • Understand that making connections between sources can help us to develop a better understanding of what life might have been like.
  • Explain the significance of finds of gold objects.
  • Identify finds that are characteristic of the Bronze Age in Ireland and understand that technology changed over time.

Activities & Resources

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

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: