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In Search of Ancient Ireland
Cartographer's Journey
Fortress Ireland
Culture and Commerce
About the Film
Lesson Plans

Geographic Reference
Ross Island

Deposits of copper at Ross Island fueled Ireland's first industrial revolution.

Clues from the past

Gold has been found in bogs or under standing stones throughout Ireland -- perhaps left as offerings for ancient gods.

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by Carmel McCaffrey and Leo Eaton

Ceremonial collar
Dating from 800 B.C., this ceremonial gold collar is on display in the National Museum of Ireland.
Sometime in the fifth millennium B.C., new technology arrived in Ireland, carried by immigrants from Europe or native Irish who had learned new skills overseas. This marked the beginning of Irish agriculture, the ability to grow cereal crops and raise livestock. Grain and farm animals arrived by boat since neither was native to Ireland. The Irish quickly improved on their scientific knowledge: By 3500 B.C., Neolithic farmers were raising great stone tombs for their dead, and the greatest of these were passage tombs, passages of dressed stone leading to a corbel-roofed central burial chamber covered by a mound of earth or stone as much as 40 feet high. Many passage tombs were built on hilltops, towering over the surrounding countryside. It's little wonder later people thought them the work of giants, magical entrances to the Otherworld where gods and spirits lived. It is believed that they were originally built as burial places for priest kings who in the afterlife would act as ancestral guardians of the tribe. Building such great tombs -- a thousand years before the first pyramids rose in Egypt -- required sophisticated architectural skills and much more, since many tombs are precisely aligned with the position of the rising or setting sun on a particular day of the year. This requires both mathematics and astronomy. Yet it was still the Stone Age.

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One of Ireland's greatest treasures, the Book of Kells is the most beautiful example of gospel illumination in the world.

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Metal came first to Ireland around 2400 B.C. as the Bronze Age spread north from the Middle East. Deposits of copper at Ross Island in County Kerry fueled Ireland's first industrial revolution, mixed with tin brought across the sea from England. Metal was mined by lighting fires against ore-rich rock, pounding the residue with hammers and picking through the spoil by hand, then melting out the metal in charcoal fire pits dug in the ground. Output was tiny; a major mine might produce enough bronze to make just 50 axe-heads a year.

Not only were metal products hard to make, they were not practical; stone axes still worked better for everyday use. Thus, metal was mostly for prestige, early evidence of conspicuous consumption on the island. Along with metal came improved new ceramic technology, as Beaker pottery spread from Europe into Ireland. A wealthy elite was developing, based on personal possessions.

Gold, mined in Ireland, was shaped into beautiful lunulae (moon disks), probably worn as decoration by tribal leaders and priests. Gold has been found in bogs or under standing stones, perhaps left as offerings for the gods. Later, in the Bronze Age, Ireland's metalworking skills were the best in Europe, with Irish craftsmen creating quantities of beautiful gold jewelry, exquisite bronze horns, tools, and weapons of all kinds. Trade routes distributed the manufactured goods while raw gold, tin, and other materials not found in Ireland were imported from Britain and continental Europe.

Ardagh Chalice
The Ardagh Chalice, one of the most important artifacts in the National Museum of Ireland.
The Irish Bronze Age may have ended in economic collapse, since technology declined as contact with Europe lessened around 500 B.C. Some Celtic La Tene (from Switzerland) iron artifacts have been found in Ireland, but there's no evidence that a European Celtic invasion introduced Iron Age technology. Irish smiths learned to fashion the new metal, copying European styles and developing their own. Ireland's Iron Age was a status-conscious culture with prestige objects displaying the height of blacksmith art. Irish builders and engineers also raised huge earthworks and temples. A massive 120-foot-wide circular wooden temple was built, burned, and buried at Navan Fort in Ulster, perhaps in sacrifice to the local god. Roman coins, glass, wine -- even an optometrist's tool -- have been found in Ireland from the first century A.D. Ireland raided and traded with the Empire, absorbing the technology it needed. Things wouldn't change until the coming of Christianity in the fifth century A.D.

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