Throughout history, gold has been treasured for its natural beauty, colour and radiance. Many cultures even imagined that gold could represent the sun. Although used for a variety of purposes, including the measure of wealth, it is the use of gold for jewellery that has captured the creative imagination. This theme is explored here through the Bronze Age collections. Surprisingly in Ireland, gold jewellery is not found in Bronze Age burials with skeletons where the placement of the jewellery on the body may have given us clues as to how it was worn – so your guess as to how they were used is good as mine!
Bronze Age gold jewellery
While jewellery has existed in Ireland since Neolithic times, mostly in the form of stone beads, the advent of metallurgy opened up a new range of possibilities for the expression of wealth. The period from around 2500 - 2300 BC marks the arrival of bronze and gold objects. As a general rule in Ireland, bronze is used for tools and weapons and gold for jewellery. Irish Bronze Age gold work is recognised throughout Europe for the range, quality, quantity and the uniqueness of its types.
Other materials used for jewellery in the Bronze Age include amber, as in this exquisite necklace. Amber is a fossil tree resin with the primary source in the Baltic region.
Making gold jewellery
The objects you are about to see are nearly all made from the working and hammering of an ingot or nugget of gold, using simple tools like a hammer, chisel and anvil. This is in contrast to heating the metal and casting it in a mould. It is testimony to the skill of the metalworker that they were able to create a wide range of shapes and decorative patterns.
This is a close-up of Brian Clarke, from Wicklow, working in bronze. Although he is using a modern anvil and chisel, the principles of hammering or beating gold are similar but the properties of gold make it easier to manipulate. Brian features in a video on the Corrard Torc (at 2min 57s)
The properties of gold
Gold is highly malleable when compared to other metals, that is to say it can be worked, hammered and twisted into shape in a cold state before it will begin to crack. This problem that can be reversed by annealing (heating), before allowing it to cool and continuing with the process. Gold is also particularly suitable for being ‘drawn’ into wire, a property known as ductility. One of golds most attractive properties is that it does not corrode, which is why prehistoric gold jewellery looks as good today as it did thousands of year ago.
The purity of gold
The purity of gold is measured in carats/karats. Pure gold is referred to as 24 carat, but this metal is very rare and relatively soft, so of limited value for jewellery making. The reality is that nearly all gold contains silver and other metals even when it is found in its natural unaltered state. Therefore the carat system is a measurement of the ratio of gold to other metals. Modern jewellers deliberately add other metals including copper and silver to affect the colour, working properties and reduce the cost of the raw material.
Now for the maths! Say you purchase a ring that is 21 carat gold (lucky you!). Since the maximum number of carats you can have is 24K, - then divide the 21 carats by the 24. You will get 0.875. This means that the gold content is 87.5%. This is very high quality gold and is the gold content of the Corrard torc – one of the objects featured in this web tour.
The antiquarian term ‘lunulae’ is derived from their similarity in shape to the crescent shaped moon. They are made of sheet gold, beaten from a nugget or ingot until flat. This means that a large and impressive object can be made out of comparatively little gold (e.g. 50 grams).
Gold lunulae are among the most commonly discovered gold objects from the Early Bronze Age and first appear around 2300 BC. More than 80 of approximately 100 known lunulae have been discovered in Ireland. It is not known how they were worn but as they are flexible, they could fit around the neck.
This gold torc (1300 - 1100 BC) is one of the most impressive items of jewellery in the collection and weighs 720grams (wedding rings are generally less than 10 grams in weight). Most torcs are circular in shape forming a large hoop or ring which could be opened and closed by two interlocking clasps at either end. They may have been worn around the neck or waist.
At some time in the past the shape of the torc was changed. It now looks like a spring. This change of shape means that it no longer fits around the neck, waist, or arm. Perhaps the shape was changed to make it easier to transport, hide or bury in the ground. This may have happed when its owner had died.
This heart-shaped bulla (950 -800 BC) is a very rare object as it is one of only seven found in Ireland. Measuring 2 x 3 cm, it is remarkable for the ability the maker must have had to work on a miniature scale without the aid of a magnifying glass. The surface has circle and stud decoration and the bulla is held together by tiny strands of gold wire that are almost impossible to count with the naked eye. With a tube along the top, it is likely to have been worn strung around the neck like a locket or lucky charm.
Similar looking objects appear later in the Roman world – the word bulla derives from the Latin for bubble or blister.
Known only from Ireland, there are around 100 Bronze Age sleeve-fasteners. The term sleeve-fastener gained popularity in the 1960s given their similarity in size and shape to a small cuff-link but it is not certain how they were used. Of the incredibly few gold objects found during professional excavations, rather than by chance, is this sleeve-fastener from Killymoon, in County Tyrone. It was found with a ‘dress-fastener’. Sleeve-fasteners date to around 950 - 800 BC.
Over 60 dress-fasteners have been found in Ireland. They are larger than sleeve-fasteners but of similar date. Rather like the sleeve-fasteners, dress-fasteners could have secured clothing by having their terminals (discs) inserted into two opposing buttonholes, although this cannot be confirmed as no such clothing survives. Some of the largest examples, with weights of over 1300 grams, may not have been worn. Dress-fasteners look similar to Bronze Age bracelets as in the Downpatrick hoard, but these dress-fasteners have the larger discs at their end.
The Downpatrick gold hoard
This Late Bronze Age gold hoard (950 - 800 BC) was found in 1954 at Cathedral Hill, Downpatrick during the sinking of a grave. The hoard contains ten bracelets, a fragment of a bracelet and part of a decorated neck-ring. The neck-ring was imported probably from Spain or Portugal. Hoards are collections of valuable objects that were likely buried in the ground deliberately (perhaps) with the intention of being retrieved later. A second gold hoard at Cathedral Hill, made up of four bracelets, was found in 1956.
These strange small rings (950 - 800 BC), of which there are over 140 from Ireland (they also occur elsewhere) are known by a variety of names including ring-money or hair-rings. It is highly unlikely that they acted as a form of prehistoric currency.
The term hair-ring was influenced by similar shaped objects from Egypt tied into hair on wigs found with mummified burials. Other ways in which they may have been used include on the lobe or other parts of the ear. Evidence from ethnographic sources shows similar shaped rings used on the septum of the nose, or adorning other parts of the body. Finger rings are not known at present from the Bronze Age.
The source of Irish Bronze Age gold – the 64 million dollar question!
Gold can be mined by (a) sinking deep shafts into the ground; (b) can be exposed at the surface or (c) found in rivers which flow over gold veins eroding the gold out (alluvial gold). Bronze Age prospectors could only dig shallow mines, so surface and alluvial sources were key.
As well as deep veins of gold in County Tyrone, gold can be found in streams in the Sperrins, Mournes and particularly in several Wicklow rivers. Rather like the Californian gold rush, once rich sources could have been exploited leaving only small amounts remaining.
Attempts have been made to sample these gold sources and create a ‘finger print’ of the percentages of gold and other types of metals that the gold grains or nugget contain. These measurements vary between sources. It was hoped then that by measuring the gold of actual objects a ‘finger-print’ match could be made, linking the object to its source of gold. With no good matches in Ireland there are two schools of thought – (a) an Irish gold source was still used (we know that Bronze Age metalworkers deliberately added and reused metals so the finger print idea may not work); or (b) that gold was imported gold from Cornwall, along with tin, where there are better finger print matches at least for the Early Bronze Age. The jury is out!