The late Bronze Age and the Dowris metalwork industry

The question arises, therefore, what preceded the Irish La Tene? Metal-work in the Hallstatt Iron Age tradition is even more sparsely represented in Ireland than it is in Britain, and what there is in any significant numbers, namely, bronze swords of Gundlingen type (Cowen, 1967), is generally regarded as being of local manufacture, like their British counterparts, rather than evidence of close direct contact with Continental Europe. Hallstatt-type bracelets or Italic-type brooches, often without reliable provenance as with examples in Britain, cannot even be regarded certainly as ancient rather than more recent imports. So a substantial hiatus opens up between the retarded appearance of La Tene types and whatever latest date can be plausibly sustained for the survival of the Dowris late Bronze Age (Eogan, 1964).

Now in principle it is possible that the Dowris tradition continued in fashion for several centuries, though the notion of Ireland as a cultural backwater from the end of the late Bronze Age would not commend itself to many archaeologists in Ireland. It would, furthermore, represent a radical reversal of Ireland's role in the Atlantic late Bronze Age itself, when the Dowris tradition par excellence exemplified long-distance connections with the industrial sequences of Britain, north-western France and Northern Europe. Unfortunately, since Eogan's original analysis of the Irish industrial phases, the chronology for its British and European counterparts has, if anything, extended further backwards, making even longer the chronological span to be bridged. Dowris must now begin around or shortly after 1000 bc, alongside the Wilburton—Wallington tradition in England and the St Brieuc-des-Iffs in Brittany (Burgess, 1969), but how long did it survive while the latter groups progressed through their Ewart Park and Carp's Tongue phases? Only after that, around or after 700 bc, do the latter enter their 'transitional' phases, represented in Britain by sites like Llyn Fawr or in Brittany by the distribution and deposition of 'Armorican' socketed axes. Certainly, by comparison with the two preceding phases, named by Eogan after hoards from Bishopsland and Roscommon (the latter effectively represented by a single find), the Dowris phase embraces a substantial number of sites and a wide range of types, so that it could be argued that it does indeed span a protracted period of time. Indeed, some further subdivision might facilitate the identification of types that are earlier or later relatively within that protracted sequence.

Eogan himself (1974) did, of course, identify discrete groupings in the late Bronze Age metal-work assemblage, not chronological but geographical (Figure 8.2). In particular, he identified a south-western distribution, centred on north Munster, including bronze shields and Class II horns and bowls, lock-rings, and gorgets in gold. Gold is not among the known mineral resources of the region, and the earlier bronze industries had concentrated further south. Furthermore, these were novel types of the late Bronze Age, so that the possibility of an external impulse was considered, with the few available parallels being European or even Mediterranean in origin. In contrast, a northeasterly grouping was identified, comprising cauldrons of Class A, buckets, horns of Class I, striated rings and sleeve fasteners, some of which, at any rate, could be matched in Britain or Northern Europe. Other types, such as socketed sickles and gouges, tanged chisels and disc-headed pins had distributions that, while not co-terminous with this north-east/south-west divide, nevertheless were markedly sparse in the far south-west. In addition to these regional groups it should be noted that Eogan also

South West Divide
Figure 8.2 Regional distributions of late Bronze Age metal-work in Ireland. Adapted from Eogan (1974).

identified what he termed 'national' types, such as dress-fasteners, that had a much broader distribution in Ireland, as well as counterparts in Northern Britain. Linking these metal-work distributions with other archaeological or onomastic distributions is more tenuous, of course, but the concentration of cathar place-names, and indeed the stone forts and hill-forts themselves, seems to underline the probability that the north-east/south-west divide had its origins at an earlier stage in prehistory, at least from 1000 bc.

What evidence is there for late Bronze Age metal-working associated with field monuments that are conventionally regarded as characteristic of the Iron Age? Hill-fort sites have certainly produced late Bronze Age metal-work in Ireland, but as in Britain the difficulty lies in demonstrating that the metal-work was deposited in a phase of occupation contemporary with the fortifications themselves. At Rathgall, for instance (Raftery, 1976), Dowris metal-work included a gold ring, which was probably buried as part of a foundation deposit for a circular timber building, but while the balance of probability favours the view that these structures were contemporary with the defensive enclosure, stratigraphic demonstration of that association is plainly lacking. Equally, at Dun Aengus in the Aran Islands, the discovery of late Bronze Age metal-work with little else that is demonstrably later argues for the likelihood of the construction of the defences at this time (Cotter, 1992; 1993; 1994). On the other hand, scraps of late Bronze Age material from Mooghaun, Co. Clare (Grogan, 1994) could well be residual from a pre-fort phase of occupation, since there is evidence of such occupation sealed beneath the ramparts on the hill-top. On the other hand, a single radiocarbon date for the rampart of the outer enclosure does not preclude the possibility of later Bronze Age beginnings for the defences.

'Royal' sites, those that have historical associations as well as features like internal ditches that set them apart from regular hill-forts, also display evidence of occupation in the late Bronze Age. Emain Macha, Navan fort in Co. Armagh (Waterman and Lynn, 1997), certainly was in use in the later Bronze Age, as is attested not only by a series of radiocarbon dates but also by the presence of late Bronze Age metal-work. Neighbouring sites, such as Haughey's fort and the ritual deposits at the King's Stables site affirm the importance of this high-status or ritual complex in the later Bronze Age. Ring-forts may also have begun in the late Bronze Age, if the finds from Aughinish, Co. Limerick, are indicative, while the evidence from Rathtinaun, Co. Sligo, might argue the same for crannogs. Ironically, both these field monument types are widely regarded as typical of the early Christian period, so that it is their currency during the intervening early Iron Age that has yet to be convincingly demonstrated.

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  • Bibiana
    How did the bronze age enter ireland?
    7 years ago

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