Thursday, March 31, 2011

A history of Ireland in 100 objects

Basket earrings, Amesbury, England, circa 2300 BC

A man in his late 30s or early 40s was buried alone at Amesbury, near the great English monument of Stonehenge, sometime around 2400-2200 BC.

From the huge range of objects in his grave, he had considerable status. The objects were similar to finds from the same period in Ireland: barbed and tanged arrowheads, a stone wrist guard, beaker-shaped pots. He even wore gold basket-shaped earrings or hair ornaments strikingly similar to some in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin.

But although we can glean a certain amount from the artefacts found in Ireland, they don’t tell us much about the people who owned them. In Amesbury, owner and objects were found together, offering far more information. And, although we must be cautious in our interpretations, this information is likely also true of Ireland. What makes him so significant for an understanding of Irish prehistory is where he came from and the fact that copper knives and other tools in the grave show that he was a metalworker.

By studying the chemical isotopes in his teeth, scientists have established that the so-called Amesbury Archer grew up in the Alpine region of southern Germany or Switzerland, where the mining and use of copper and gold had long been known. Andrew Fitzpatrick of Wessex Archaeology suggests, from the evidence of some of the grave goods, that he probably made his way to England via southern France, the Iberian peninsula and the Atlantic.

Why does he matter for Ireland? Because the Amesbury Archer provides crucial evidence about the biggest development after the arrival of agriculture: the mining and shaping of metals. There is no dispute that the arrival of metalworking, around 2400 BC, is linked to new cultural practices characterised by the kind of objects found in the archer’s grave and by the practice of single rather than communal burial.

What is not clear about the arrival of metalworking, though, is, as Mary Cahill of the National Museum puts it, “whether it was brought by people on the move looking for new sources of metals or whether it’s a transmission of information as opposed to people. But the fact that the Amesbury Archer turns out not to have been born in southern Britain and has travelled all the way from central Europe is indicative of some movement of people”.

We know that by about 2400 BC Ross Island in the Killarney lakes was established as perhaps the most important copper mine in northwestern Europe. The first Irish evidence of metalworking is therefore already quite highly developed. It is very unlikely that this expertise emerged spontaneously. As Fitzpatrick puts it, “Ross has to be developed by people who already have the knowledge. You can’t just make that up.” It is clearly no coincidence that the pottery found at Ross is of the new beaker type. A large cultural shift is under way in Ireland, and it is associated with the mining of copper and gold.

This does not mean that Ireland was “invaded” by new tribes of metalworkers. But migrants from central Europe and the Atlantic coasts of France and Spain almost certainly played a key part in the end of Stone Age Ireland.

For more interesting topics related to archaeology, visit archaeology excavations.

No comments: