When was the Irish Middle Bronze Age?

Middle Bronze Age dirk from Co. Dublin.

The Irish Middle Bronze Age commenced between 1600 and 1500 BC, it lasted for about 300-400 years and ended about 1200 BC.

The Bronze Age is dated in two ways. The traditional way has been to use metal associations and typologies to define periods that are dated with reference to each other, to a handful of radiocarbon dates and to associations and typologies in central and northern Europe. In recent years this has been supplemented by radiocarbon dated chronologies and typologies of graves and associated finds and the statistical analysis of radiocarbon chronologies. The former method presents a series of successive regularly-spaced periods. The latter appears as a series of often overlapping artefact traditions of varying lengths.

The Middle Bronze Age is a distinctive period with significant developments in the burial and artefactual sphere; the numbers of identified burials decrease and decorated pottery was replaced in burials by coarse domestic pottery. The deposition of hoards decreased and side-looped spearheads, dirks, rapiers and palstaves came into use. There are an increasing number of houses and settlements known from the period including the earliest known villages.

The final phase of the Early Bronze Age is referred to as the Derryniggin phase, after the distinctive flanged axe type, or as the Inch Island tradition, after a spearhead mould, and is considered contemporary with the Arreton tradition in Britain. This was followed by the Killymaddy phase, named after a find of stone moulds for casting dirks, spearheads, blades and sickles. The Killymaddy phase is considered contemporary with the Acton Park phase in Britain. The next phase is the Bishopsland phase, named after a hoard of tools from Co. Kildare which is considered contemporary with the Taunton phase in Britain.

In 2004 Eoin Grogan placed the commencement of the Middle Bronze Age at c. 1600 BC at the end of the Derryniggin/Arreton phase, continuing through the Killymaddy/Acton Park phase and into the beginning of the Bishopsland/Taunton phase. In his scheme the period lasted 400 years from c.1600-1200 BC. He argued that cordoned urns continued in use form the Early to the Middle Bronze Age and suggested that burials containing cordoned urns, razor knives and faience beads were Middle Bronze Age in date.

In her 2007 Book on the Food Vessels and Urns of the Early Bronze Age Anna Brindley suggested that the Derryniggin phase commenced around 1700 BC at the same time as the change from collared to cordoned urns. She didn’t refer to the Middle Bronze Age but argued that cordoned urns continued in use until about 1500 BC, which would have taken them into the beginning of the Killymaddy/Acton Park phase. The razors were mainly found with her stage 2 cordoned urns which date to c.1700-c.1570 BC. She also suggested that cordoned urns could have remained in use after 1500 BC as domestic ware.

Bayliss in her contribution to the Tara – From the Past to the Future conference proceedings (in preparation) argued on the basis of her Bayesian analysis of the available radiocarbon dates that cordoned urns went out of use in the period 1670 – 1480 cal BC (95% probability), but that razors were only interred in graves from 1885 – 1615 cal BC (95% probability). This would suggest that deposition of razors with cordoned urns ended in the Derryniggin/Arreton phase at the end of the Early Bronze Age, although cordoned urns may have continued in use into the Middle Bronze Age.

In 2010 Waddell equated the Middle Bronze Age with the Killymaddy/Acton Park phase which he suggested should be dated earlier to 1600 and lasted until 1400 BC. He saw the Bishopsland/Taunton phase commencing about 1400 BC and continuing until 1100 BC, but he placed the end of the Middle Bronze Age at about 1200 BC.

There is still disagreement about about which phase the Middle Bronze Age commenced in,  Derryniggin or Killymaddy, and about whether cordoned urn burials were mainly a part of the Early or Middle Bronze Age. However, the consensus is that the Middle Bronze Age commenced between 1600 and 1500 BC and lasted for about 300-400 years into the earlier part of the Bishopsland phase before ending about 1200 BC.

Further reading

Eoin Grogan’s paper on Middle Bronze Age burial traditions in Ireland appears in H. Roche, E. Grogan, J. Bradley, J. Coles and B. Raftery (Eds) 2004, From Megaliths to Metal; Essays in Honour of George Eogan, Oxbow Books. Anna Brindley’s chronology appears in her 2007 Book The Dating of Food Vessels and Urns in Ireland, Bronze Age Studies 7, NUI Galway. John Waddell’s analysis appears in Chapter 6: Bronze And Gold And Power: 1600-1000 BC in the 2010 edition of The Prehistoric Archaeology of Ireland, Wordwell.

About the author

Dr. Charles Mount has been involved in research on the Irish Bronze Age for more than twenty years and has published extensively on the burials, monuments and artefacts of the period. This blog post is based on research he is preparing for a book on the period. You can read more of Dr. Mount’s publications here .

Cite this post as:

Mount, C. When was the Irish Middle Bronze Age? The Charles Mount Blog, October 20, 2011. http://charles-mount.ie/wp/?p=623

Archaeological Licenses: a Real-time Indicator of Construction Output

Excavation at the Brownstown pit, Co. Kildare indicating the close relationship between archaeological excavation and construction output.

Archaeological excavation licensing data is a real-time source of construction output data that is easily obtained and can provide a relative indication of construction activity at any time of the year.

In Ireland the main source of data on construction output is the Central Statistics Office (CSO) which produces the Production in Building and Construction Index that covers, on a sample basis, the production of all firms in the private (i.e. non-State) sector whose main activity is building, construction or civil engineering. Approximately 2,000 firms are surveyed each quarter and the survey takes approximate three months to collate and estimate and a further three months to produce final figures. Because of the detailed collation and number crunching involved this is a look-back exercise that tells you were the construction industry has been three to six months earlier. The index also has limited predictive ability, it doesn’t signal when a change in trend is going to occur.

Archaeological excavation licensing is a real-time source of construction output data that is easily obtained and can provide a relative indication of construction activity at any time of the year. Under the Planning Acts archaeological assessment and preservation by record is an integral part of the development process and must precede all development projects in Ireland that impact archaeology from house extensions to shopping centres at both the planning and construction stages. All archaeological investigations require a license under the National Monuments Acts and the licenses are granted by the National Monuments Service just days before an excavation takes place. Therefore archaeological licensing is sensitive to changes in trend. The license database is constantly updated and can be used to track activity in the sector on a weekly, monthly, quarterly or annual basis.

Chart comparing the numbers of archaeological licenses to construction output in the period 2000-2010.

Comparison of the annual figures for construction activity in the CSO index and excavation licenses in the period 2000 – 2010 (see chart) indicates a close relation between the two sets of data. From the year 2000 both sets of figures were on an upward trend but from 2002 the increase in the numbers of excavation licenses preceded and predicted the large increase in the construction index that occurred after 2004. After a short decline in 2004 – 2005 the number of annual licenses peaked at the same time as the construction index and has moved along an almost identical trend of decline to the end of 2010. The statistical correlation of the two number series is 0.805 indicating a relatively high degree of positive correlation.

What is particularly interesting about the licensing data is that it captures information about pre-development testing, which can take place years before the actual construction, as well as pre-construction excavation. For this reason the data may provide early indicators of a change in trend. The 2002 acceleration in licenses preceded and may have predicted the 2004 acceleration in the construction output. It may be useful to extract the pre-development testing licenses from the overall data and see how they correlate with construction output. There is the possibility that this data will provide early signals of both upward and downward trends in the data.

Of course archaeologists have used the number of licenses issued as a barometer of the health of the construction industry for years. The correlation between archaeological licenses and construction output suggests that any future increase in the latter will be preceded by an increase in the numbers of the former. By keeping an eye on the relative numbers of licenses issued and making quarter on quarter comparisons economy watchers may be able to pick up an early signal of a return to construction growth.

The figures for construction output were derived from the Production in Building and Construction Index published by the CSO in June 2011. The figures for excavation licenses was derived from the numbers of sites notified to the Annual Excavations Bulletin with the 2009 and 2010 figures provided by the National Monuments Service.

Cite this post as:

Mount, C. Archaeological Licenses: a Real-time Indicator of Construction Output. The Charles Mount Blog, October 12, 2011. http://charles-mount.ie/wp/?p=605

Irish Early Bronze Age Houses 1.4

The development of Early Bronze Age houses from the oval example at Ross Island to the post-built house at Dogstown and the large wall slot and post-built example at Townparks.


In Ireland after 2200/2100 BC copper was alloyed with tin to create bronze and the Early Bronze Age commenced. The Early Bronze Age is distinguished from the preceding Copper Age by a number of factors. These include the use of bronze and the development of cemeteries of pit and cists graves either flat or in barrows and cairns. Other factors are the introduction of Bowl and Vase Food Vessels and later Urns as well the development of the classic Bronze Age settlement feature, the round house. The end of the period saw the transition to the Middle Bronze Age in the years 1600-1500 BC.

At the time of writing just 22 houses from 18 settlements can be confidently said to date to the Early Bronze Age. However, this is more than twice the number discussed by Martin Doody in his review of the houses of the Bronze Age just over a decade ago. Not all these sites are published and as other site reports become available the preliminary scheme presented here may be subject to change. The significant increase in the number of settlements known in comparison with the Copper Age is probably due to the use of larger structural elements such as posts and bedding trenches that have left more substantial remains. The houses don’t occur all over the country but have been found in two main concentrations. Half the sites have been found in north-east Ulster with three around the shores of Lough Neagh. The second group is in the south and east and extends from Ross Island, near Killarney, across Cork, Tipperary and Laois to South Dublin. Throughout the west, midlands and north-west no houses of the period have been identified. The house distribution is much more restricted than the Early Bronze Age burials and is largely a result of development driven investigations.

The houses are discussed within a three phase chronological scheme; EBA I-III using a combination of radiocarbon dates and pottery associations. This phasing has been made possible by the publication of Anna Brindley’s radiocarbon-dated pottery typology that has transformed our understanding of Early Bronze Age chronology.

Early Bronze Age I

In EBA I, which dates from 2200/2100 – 2000/1900 BC, there are seven houses known from four settlements. Only half of these houses are published but there is enough information available to indicate that the houses had a variety of forms ranging from rectangular, to sub-rectangular, oval, horse-shoe shaped and semi-circular. Six of the houses were built with foundation trenches, two of which contained posts and one stakes. Only one house is said to have been built of posts alone. The houses were relatively small or narrow, with diameters ranging from just 2.7-6.09m. Four of the houses were associated with Beaker pottery (which continued in use into the Early Bronze Age) and two with Bowl Food Vessels. House D at the Ross Island copper mine had a nodule of pure cooper in its foundation trench, which is the earliest occurrence of the metal in an Irish house. At three of the sites the houses were arranged in pairs.

Early Bronze Age II

In EBA II, dating after 2000/1900 BC, there was a move from pairs of small houses to single large houses with the development of the classic Bronze Age round house. There are just five houses known from five settlements. These were all single structures constructed with posts or posts and bedding trenches and arrangements of internal posts to support the roof structure. The houses were much larger than the EBA I examples with a diameter range from 6-12.8m. The largest example from Brecart, Co. Antrim was a very large sub-circular structure with a diameter of 11.8 x 12.8m and was constructed with a bedding trench, posts and stakes. The post-built house at Dogstown was associated with sherds of Vase Food Vessel. The post-built house at Ballyveelish is the earliest with a porch entrance feature and it was also used as a mortuary house and probably a dead house.

Early Bronze Age III

IN EBA III, after 1750 BC, the Early Bronze Age entered its final phase ending with the transition to the Middle Bronze Age after 1600/1500 BC. There are nine houses known from seven settlements. Note that refinements in the statistical analysis of radiocarbon dating may move houses discussed here into the Middle Bronze Age and vice versa.

Most of the settlements had pottery associations and Cordoned Urns were the most common type. As in the earlier EBA II period there tended to be one house per settlement. Most houses were built with wall slots or gullies with internal posts to support the roof structure and the diameters range from 4 – 9m. The largest example at Townparks, Antrim appears to have had walls finished with wattle and daub. This phase has the first evidence for house enclosures and two of the houses were set within palisades.


The Early Bronze Age saw significant development in house design. Commencing with a range of shapes the classic post-built round house came into use after 2000/1900 BC in what is often referred to as the Ballyvally stage of the Bronze. This stage also saw the first elaboration of houses with the addition of porches and probably the use of mortuary houses. At the end of the period more elaborate houses with posts and bedding trenches developed and the first enclosed palisaded house enclosures appeared.

Note this summary is based on published and unpublished material as well as accounts from the Excavations Bulletin and may be subject to change as more detailed information becomes available. The Bronze Age houses have not to date been the subject of a statistical radiocarbon analysis and this will probably have a significant impact on the proposed dating sequence. My thanks go to Robert Chapple for allowing me to refer to unpublished material on Brecart, Co. Antrim.

Further reading

Half the sites have already been discussed by Martin Doody (2000) in his review of Bronze Age Houses and he includes a full set of references. The Ross Island houses are discussed by William O’Brien in his monograph on the copper mines. The house at Dogstown is published by Doody (2009) and Townparks by Beverly Ballin Smith et al. (2003).

Doody, M. 2000. Bronze Age Houses in Ireland, in A. Desmond, G. Johnson, M. McCarthy, J. Sheehan and E. Shee Twohig (Eds) New Agendas in Irish Prehistory. Dublin.

Doody, M. 2009. Dogstown, Co. Tipperary. Possible Structure Site 151.3 (E2289), in M. McQuade, B. Molloy and C. Moriarty, In The Shadow of the Galtees: Archaeological excavations along the N8 Cashel to Mitchelstown Road Scheme. NRA Scheme Monographs 4. Dublin.

O’Brien, W. 2004. Ross Island Mining, Metal and Society in Early Ireland. Bronze Age Studies 6, Department of Archaeology. NUI Galway.

Smith B.B., Miller, J. Ramsay, S. 2003. The excavation of two Bronze Age Roundhouses at Townparks, Antrim Town, Ulster Journal of Archaeology 62, 16-44.

About the author

Dr. Charles Mount has been involved in research on the Irish Bronze Age for more than twenty years and has published extensively on the burials, monuments and artefacts of the period. This blog post is based on research he is preparing for a book on the period. You can read more of Dr. Mount’s publications here .

Cite this post as:

Mount, C. Irish Early Bronze Age Houses. The Charles Mount Blog, October 7, 2011. http://charles-mount.ie/wp/?p=580

Version 1.4: revised 7/10/11; 7/11/11; 17/11/11; 22/11/11