Ireland’s Ancient Gold

The Bronze Age in Ireland, (2500BC-500BC), introduced metal working skills to the country. This is widely attributed to settlers known as “beakers” from the European continent.
Bronze, a mixture of tin and copper, was used to make practical items such as cooking pots and axes, with Ireland reportedly having substantial copper reserves at that period mainly in the south of the country.

Gold was the preferred metal used for jewellery, possibly because of its rarity and colour, and as it was impracticable for other use.
It is probable that gold was sourced in the early bronze age period from rivers, and that gold, unlike today was available in Ireland at the time.

gold lunala
Collection of Lunulae.

Lunula were crafted in Ireland from the Early Bronze age.
Worn around the neck for decorative purposes, these were made by hammering a sheet of gold flat and cutting the shape from the sheet. Intricate designs were then cut into the presenting surface of the Lunula with a sharp tool. Incision designs were usually confined to the external and inner edge of the Lunula. The crescent shape probably attributes to the name Lunula, Luna being the latin for moon.

gold lunala
Left Gold Gorget Limerick 800-700bc Right: Gold Gorget Co. Clare 800-700bc

Later in the bronze age collars known as Gorgets were worn around the neck down to the breast. Again these were made from sheets of gold and the ornate designs and raised ridges were imprinted outward and inflicted from the back of the sheet. The incision technique was also used for finer detail.
gold torc
Tipperary 1500bc Gorget Collar

gold clasp
Bracelets and dress fastener New Ross, Co. Wexford. 900-700bc

What is interesting about the dress fasteners and other gold items such as torcs from the later bronze age is that these seem to indicate that gold ingots or bars were used as their crafting required a greater quantity of gold than Lunulae. While gold was present in Ireland does this indicate that extraction methods for gold had developed further, or that trade became a factor? While it is supposed that copper could be sourced readily in Ireland, tin was less common, so it may indicate that there was some trading with England at this point who had tin reserves.

gold clasp
Dress fastener, Clones Co Monaghan 900-700bc

Most of the items from this period discovered in Ireland were discovered in hordes and in bogs, lakes and rivers. It is not known why these valuables were distributed in this way. Some believe that the hordes were buried in wetlands and bogs as an offering, others believe that the hordes were deposited by their owners in times of hardship owing to climatic change or environmental factors.

The items pictured here are a small sample of a permanent exhibition in the National Museum of Ireland.