The houses of the Irish Copper Age 1.1

Reconstruction of the Copper Age house from Monknewtown, Co. Meath. Illustration from Sweetman 1976.



In Ireland the use of copper commenced sometime in the period 2600-2400 BC with the development of indigenous copper production following after 2400 BC. The Copper Age continued until 2200/2100 BC when copper was alloyed with tin to create bronze and the Early Bronze Age commenced. The Copper Age is distinguished from the preceding Late Neolithic as mining and the use of copper and gold came into use, hoards of metal objects were deposited and Grooved Ware style pottery was replaced by a new international style known as Beaker.

Identifying the houses

In comparison to other periods there is comparatively little evidence of Copper Age houses. Copper Age activity in the form of spreads of soil containing Beaker pottery and lithic material associated with stake-holes, post-holes and hearths have been found at a number of sites such as the passage tombs of Newgrange and Knowth in the Boyne Valley of Co. Meath, and at an increasing number of other sites throughout Ireland. However, in only a few instances have the excavators been able to determine with certainty the presence of actual Copper Age houses.

To date only about a dozen houses can be said to date to the Copper Age. The houses have been identified at just four sites: Lough Gur, Co. Limerick, Monknewtown, Co. Meath, Graigueshoneen, Co. Waterford and Ross Island, Co. Kerry. In the case of Lough Gur, excavated in the 1940s and 1950s, the houses are dated on the basis of association with Beaker pottery, but the remaining houses all have finds of Beaker pottery and corrobative radiocarbon dates. The Monknewtown House was dated to 2456-2138 BC, Graigueshoneen to 2460-2200 cal BC and the Ross Island houses to 2510-2150 BC.

Ross Island is the most significant site as it is an early copper mine with more than half the recognised houses of the period associated with Beaker pottery. At Lough Gur the houses were built at an established Neolithic settlement and the Circle L House succeeded three earlier Neolithic houses. The house at Graigueshoneen may also have succeeded an earlier house. The Monknewtown house was constructed in the interior of a hengiform ceremonial enclosure and was probably a ceremonial structure but is still useful for examining the architecture of the period.

The form of the houses

Most of the houses have ground plans ranging from oval to sub-circular and there are two D-shaped, and a rectangular and trapezoidal example. The houses vary in size from the largest example at Graigueshoneen, which was 7.6m in diameter, to the much smaller houses at Ross Island that measured from 5m down to just 1.2m in diameter. The construction method was variable with wooden stakes the most common method for supporting walls. The walls supported by the wooden stakes were presumably light wattle panels similar to those identified in wetland excavations. Stakes were sometimes used in conjunction with bedding trenches as at Ross island site A. A number of the houses at Graigueshoneen and Ross Island had overlapping concentric rings of stakes. This may indicate that these houses were rebuilt or they may have had inner and outer wall faces that contained an internal filling.

The houses at Lough Gur were different; they were of heavier construction with wooden posts and bedding trenches and had stone wall footings that would have supported heavier walls and roofing. In about half the houses there were post-holes that could have supported a roof but in the remaining cases it is not clear how the roofs were supported. At Monknewtown and Ross Island A and E the roof supports were internal and the houses may have resembled tents. The original reconstruction of the Monknewtown house suggests a structure like a tent with the internal posts supporting the roof and the eaves resting on the ground. Where doorways were identified these were on the northern, southern and eastern sides with no western examples.


The light construction and the use of wooden stakes to support probably low and light weight wattle panels and the use of a few internal posts to support the roof appears to have been the characteristic building method of the Copper Age. This would explain why so few Copper Age houses have been identified. A series of light oval structures rebuilt in the same location would leave a meaningless jumble of stake and post-holes associated with spreads of settlement material. The fact is that many of the spreads of settlement material associated with Beaker pottery and stone artefacts are probably the remains of Copper Age settlements. The really puzzling thing however is that not a single one of these definite or possible Copper Age settlements contained a scrap of copper.

Additional notes

Robert Chapple has written a very interesting blog involving an analysis of the radiocarbon dates of the Copper Age which you can read here.

Version 1.1: revised 3/10/2011

Further reading

William O’Brien’s 2004 volume Ross Island: Mining, Metal and Society in Early Ireland, Bronze Age Studies 6, NUI Galway, is the most important work produced to date on the Copper Age in Ireland and contains the excavation reports of most of the known Copper Age houses. The Lough Gur houses were published in Seán P. Ó Ríordáin 1954, Lough Gur Excavations: Neolithic and Bronze Age Houses on Knockadoon, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, Section C, 297-459 and Eoin Grogan and George Eogan et al. 1987, Lough Gur Excavations by Seán P. Ó Ríordáin: Further Neolithic and Beaker Habitations on Knockadoon, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, Section C, 299-506. Monknewtown is published in P. David Sweetman 1976 An Earthen Enclosure at Monknewtown, Slane, Co. Meath, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, Section C, 25-73. Graigueshoneen is published in John Tierney et al. 2008, Beaker Settlement: Area 2, Graigueshoneen TD Licence No. 98E0575, in P. Johnston et al. Near the Bend in the River: The Archaeology of the N25 Kilmacthomas Realignment. NRA Scheme Monographs 3, Dublin.

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. The Houses of the Irish Copper Age. The Charles Mount Blog, September 8, 2011.

Hoards in the Irish Copper and Bronze Ages

Hoard of gold lunulae from Rathrooen, Co. Mayo. Image originally published in Clarke et al. 1985.

Throughout the Copper and Bronze Ages the deposition of hoards fluctuated through cycles of activity driven by religious, social and economic factors. After 1,500 years hoard deposition increased parabolicly in the last few centuries of the period indicating that the economy had boomed to the extent that people were wealthy enough to participate in an unprecedented process of wealth destruction. But this was followed by a complete halt to hoard deposition caused by economic collapse or social and religious changes or a combination of these factors.


In Ireland the use of metal commenced with the use of copper and gold from at least 2400 BC in the period known as the Copper Age and continued until the wide adoption of iron technology after 700-600 BC. One of the main themes of the Copper and Bronze Ages are hoards. Hoards are collections of objects that are buried together either in the ground or in bogs or other wetlands like lakes, marshes or rivers. Sometimes large collections of objects from bogs and wetlands that probably accumulated over time are also referred to as hoards. The study of the contents of hoards are important to our understanding of the Copper/Bronze Age as they record which objects were in use at a particular period, tell us about the production and distribution of objects and about contemporary society and religious practices. There are a number of different types of hoards including hoards of scrap metal for recycling and hoards of newly made objects for trade and distribution that were intended for recovery. Personal hoards are made up of sets of ornaments, tools or weapons that represented the personal property of an individual. These may have been deposited with the intention of recovery or they may have been intended as religious offerings never to be recovered. Finally there are large community hoards that are usually found in bog/wetland locations and were offerings deposited as part of religious ceremonies.

The record of hoards

There are more than 230 hoards known from the Copper/Bronze Age that contain more than 2,200 objects. Thirty-eight hoards are known from the Copper Age, 32 from the Early Bronze Age, just 5 from the Middle Bronze Age and 157 from the Late Bronze Age (O’Flaherty 1995, Eogan 1983 and 1994). One of the earliest hoards is the Castletown Roche hoard of four flat copper axes which were found close to the Awbeg River in Cork. Hoards continued to be deposited right into the seventh century BC and possible afterwards. In fact most of the known hoards were deposited in the period from the ninth century BC, known as the Dowris phase after a large bog/wetland hoard found near Birr, Co. Offaly. It was also in the Late Bronze Age that very large community hoards developed at bog/wetland locations like Dowris, Mooghaun, Co. Clare and the Bog of Cullen, Co. Tipperary. A trend throughout the Copper/Bronze Age was the deposition of hoards in bog/wetlands. About a third of the Copper and Early Bronze Age hoards, all the Middle Bronze Age hoards and about half the Late Bronze Age hoards are from bog/wetlands. The defining characteristic of these hoards is that they formed a part of religious ceremonies and were never intended to be recovered.

The Copper Age hoards

From the Copper Age, which commenced by 2400 BC or earlier, there are about 114 objects, mainly flat axes, gold discs and lunulae known from 38 hoards. Gold and copper were usually deposited separately. For example at Clashbredane, Co. Cork 25 flat axes were found in Raheen bog during peat cutting, while at Dunfierth, Co. Kildare 4 gold lunulae neck ornaments were deposited together in a bog. A few other objects like daggers and halberds are mainly found in the bog hoards. The objects in gold hoards were often in pairs and appear to represent personal objects.

The Early Bronze Age hoards

After 2200/2100 BC copper was alloyed with tin to create bronze and the Early Bronze Age commenced. There are about 145 hoard objects known from 32 hoards in this period of over 600 years. There appears to have been a reduction in hoard deposition compared to the Copper Age. Axes were still the most common object included with a few daggers and halberds occurring in bog/wetland contexts. Gold disappeared from hoards and wasn’t deposited again until the Late Bronze Age.

The Middle Bronze Age hoards

After 1500 BC the Bronze Age moved into its Middle phase and hoard deposition went into a further decline. Only three hoards with just 11 objects are known mainly from bog/wetlands in the north-west. These included Spears for the first time with flanged and palstave axes.

The Late Bronze Age hoards

After 1300/1200 BC, in the period known as the Bishopsland phase, gold hoards reappeared for the first time since the Copper Age. Twenty-five hoards of mainly personal ornaments are known that include 130 objects such as torcs, bracelets, rings, ear-rings and hair-rings that were made of gold and were mostly deposited in dry land hoards. The gold objects were all international types that are found throughout Britain, France and Spain. These were the personal property of individuals but appear to have been selected and buried for some special social or religious purpose rather than just concealment.

After 1000 BC there was another brief period of decline in hoard deposition during what is known as the Roscommon phase of the Late Bronze Age. Only 3 hoards containing more than 200 objects are known from this period. The most important find from the period the Roscommon hoard contained more than 200 pieces of broken and possibly scrap bronze. The objects in the hoards are primarily swords, spearheads, axes and other tools.

After 900 BC during the Dowris phase the Bronze Age reached its finale. It is not entirely clear how long this period lasted. There is evidence that iron working had been introduced to Ireland sometime between 800-700 BC. So for part of the Dowris phase both bronze and iron were in use simultaneously. From this short period more than 130 hoards are known containing more than 1,600 objects of bronze, gold, amber, glass, etc. These two or three hundred years saw over three times more objects deposited in hoards than in the proceeding 1,500 years. These hoards also contained the widest range of objects of the Bronze Age with tools such as axes and gouges, weapons such as swords and spear-heads, and razors, rings, containers, musical instruments and personal ornaments and gold rings and gorges, and beads of glass and faience. Most of the hoards are known from bog/wetlands and a number of them like Dowris, Cullen and Mooghaun each contained more than 200 objects which appear to have been deposited over a number of years.

The parabolic increase in hoard deposition indicates that during the Dowris phase the economy had boomed to the extent that many people were wealthy enough to participate in an unprecedented process of wealth destruction through the offering of valuable objects to the gods at ceremonies mostly centred on sacred bog/wetland sites. The large community hoards like Dowris and Mooghaun contained a wide range of objects from cauldrons and swords, to musical instruments, tools and ornaments. These hoards may be the accumulation of annual or episodic ceremonial offerings. There were also hoards of ornaments like the example from a bog at Kilmoyly, Co. Kerry with its gold bracelets and dress fastener deposited in a wooden box. These hoards represent an offering on behalf of wealthy individuals. There are weapon hoards like the example from wetland at Ballycroghan, Co. Down with its three leaf-shaped swords. The weapon hoards probably represent the offerings of individual chieftains. There are also tool hoards like the example from Crossna, Co. Roscommon with socketed axes, a gouge and knife, which probably represent the offerings of wealthy farmers.


The mechanisms behind these wildly fluctuating rates of hoard deposition are still poorly understood. If hoards were being buried as a means of concealment and safekeeping with the intention of recovery we would expect to have found much larger numbers of hoards from the Middle Bronze Age and the early part of the Late Bronze Age and would expect to find gold hoards throughout the period. Instead what we are seeing are cycles of fluctuations in hoard deposition that were driven by religious, social and economic factors. The phases may have lasted for hundreds of years but could have been shorter. The activity also took place at different social scales from the community to the individual level but each would have taken place within a defined social and political context. Some time probably between 600 and 500 BC the deposition of hoards ceased completely as a result of economic collapse or social and religious changes or a combination of these factors. This could have been a slow process or an abrupt collapse in activity. The production and use of bronze alongside iron continued in the succeeding Iron Age but was never again to reach the same scale.

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 .

Further reading

O’Flaherty 1995 discusses the bronze hoards of the Copper and Early Bronze Age. Eogan 1994 discusses the gold hoards of the Copper Age and Bronze Age. Eogan 1983 catalogues the hoards of the Middle and Late Bronze Age. Kristiansen 1998 discusses in detail the social and economic analysis of hoarding throughout Europe.

Clarke, D.V. et al. 1985. Symbols of Power at the time of Stonehenge. Edinburgh.

Eogan, G. 1983. Hoards of the Irish later Bronze Age. Dublin.

Eogan, G. 1994. The Accomplished Art. Gold and Gold Working in Britain and Ireland during the Bronze Age. Oxford.

Kristiansen, K. 1998. Europe before History. Cambridge.

O’Flaherty, R. 1995. An analysis of the Irish Early Bronze Age hoards containing copper or bronze objects. Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries 125, 10-45.

Cite this post as:

Mount, C. Hoards in the Irish Copper and Bronze Ages. The Charles Mount Blog, August 25, 2011.

The two burial traditions of the beaker period in Ireland 1.1

A beaker from Largantea, Co. Derry, after Herring 1938.


New discoveries are transforming how we view the beaker period.


Beaker is a style of prehistoric pottery found throughout Europe in the later part of the third millennium BC from Scandinavia to North Africa and from the Danube to Ireland. Early beakers are tall pots with characteristic curving bell-shaped profiles and narrow flat bases that are often decorated with horizontal bands of decoration, although later beakers had a wider variety of forms. Radiocarbon dating indicates that beaker came into use in Ireland during the Cooper Age in the years following 2450 cal BC. Beaker ceased being deposited in burials by about 2170 cal BC but remained in general use when the Bronze Age commenced about 2000 BC and only went out of use entirely about 1900 Cal BC. It is the roughly three hundred years when beaker appeared in burials between 2450-2170 cal BC that I will refer to as the beaker period.

In Ireland beaker is found at settlement and ceremonial sites as well as in burials and early copper mines. Until recently Irish beaker burials were only known from megalithic tombs mainly in the north of the island. Discoveries made since the 1990s have transformed the situation. We are now able to discuss two burial traditions, one involving both old and newly built megalithic tombs in the north and a single burial tradition in the south. Beaker period burials are now known from old megalithic tombs with beaker associated burials. They are also known from newly built megalithic Wedge Tombs with beaker associated burials as well as from Wedge Tombs without beaker associated burials. To this we can now add burials with beaker in pits and without beaker in stone cists.

Old Megalithic tombs

In the Beaker period people in the north of the island placed burials accompanied by beaker pottery into megalithic tombs which were already very old monuments. The main old tomb used for beaker burial was the Court Tomb. There are about 390 Court Tombs known that consist of longitudinal chambers under long cairns with forecourt entrance features. At Ballybriest, Co. Derry, for example, an oval cavity resembling a polygonal cist was created in the Court Tomb cairn and the cremated remains of an adult male associated with a beaker were then placed into the cavity.

Newly built megalithic tombs

Wedge Tombs are the most common megalithic tomb type known in Ireland, with more than 500 known examples found mainly in the north, west and south-west. Most Wedge Tombs have wedge-shaped chambers with forecourts and round to oval cairns. Wedge Tombs came into use during the period 2540-2300 cal BC at about the start of the Beaker period and broadly contemporary beaker burials have been identified in a number of Wedge tombs mainly in the north. Both cremated and unburnt human remains were deposited in the Wedge tombs although cremation was more common. For example, at Largantea Co. Derry, cremated remains were deposited with what appeared to be whole beakers.

Wedge Tombs with burials not associated with beaker

Not all the Wedge Tombs investigated contained Beaker pottery. A number of examples have been investigated in the south of the country, like Labbacallee and Island, Co. Cork, that contained human remains but no beaker pottery. This indicates that not all beaker period burials were accompanied by beaker and we should be on the lookout for contemporary pit burials without pottery.

Pit burials with beaker

There are a number of pit burials containing Beaker now known from the south and east of the country. These burials are characterised as having small token quantities of cremated bone associated with sherds from one or more beakers sometimes associated with large stone artefacts like axes and mace heads, as well as flint and cereal grains. At Lismullin, Co. Meath a pit contained a cremated individual with burnt stone, a fragment of a mace head and sherds of two beakers as well as some Neolithic sherds and a flint flake. At Corbally, Co. Kildare a pit with a scorched base contained cremated human bone, animal bone, burnt flint and a chert barbed and tanged arrowhead with sherds of two beakers. Another pit in the neighbouring townland of Brownstown Co. Kildare contained cremated bone and barley and wheat associated with sherds of beaker.

Cist graves without Beaker

At Brackagh, Co. Derry a a small sub-rectangular cairn that was enclosed by 11 posts covered a pair of stone cists, one rectangular and the other octagonal, within a figure of eight stone setting. The octagonal cist contained the cremated remains of two adults that were dated to 2620-2485 cal. BC. The rectangular cist also contained the cremated remains of two individuals dated to 2485-2342 cal BC. There were no artefact associations with the burials. These cist burials highlight the possibility that other cists containing cremations but no associated artefacts may also date to the Beaker period.


The new evidence is transforming our view of burial in the beaker period in Ireland. Two contrasting burial types are now visible, one traditional and centred on megalithic tombs mainly in the north of the island. The other focussed on simpler single graves mainly in the south. The megalithic tombs continued a long tradition of collective burial of both burnt and unburnt remains and the deposition of whole pottery vessels that may have contained organic materials. In contrast pit burials were single graves with only small amounts of cremated bone accompanied by broken artefacts. What is emerging are two different views of burial, one looking to past traditions, the other making a new statement, but both using the international style of beaker pottery.

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 .

Further reading

Waddell 1998 is an excellent introduction to the prehistory of Ireland which summarises many of the themes and sites discussed here. Herity 1987 has summarised all the finds from the Irish Court Tombs. Schulting et al discuss the chronology of the Irish Wedge Tombs. O’Brien 2004 has published his excavations of the early copper mine at Ross Island, Co. Kerry and set the mines in the context of the Copper Age. For more on the pottery of the Bronze Age read Brindley 2007. Herring 1938, Purcell 2002, O’Connell 2009 and O’Regan 2010 include primary information on the Larngantia, Corbally, Brownstown, Lismullin and Brackagh burials.

Brindley, A. 2007. The dating of Food Vessels & urns in Ireland. Bronze Age Studies 7, Galway

Herity, M. 1987. The finds from Irish Court Tombs. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 87c, 5-281.

Herring, . J. 1938. The cairn excavation at Well Glass Spring, Largantea, Co. Londonderry. Ulster Journal of Archaeology 1, 164-88.

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

O’Connell, A. 2009. Excavations at Lismullin, Co. Meath 1. National Roads Authority Report.

O’Regan, C. 2010. A monumental discovery in south Derry Archaeology Ireland 24, No. 3, 22-24

Purcell, A. 2002.  Excavation of Three Neolithic Houses at Corbally, Kilcullen, Co. Kildare. Journal of Irish Archaeology 11, 31-75.

Schulting, R., Sheridan, A., Clarke, S. And Ramsey, B. 2008. Largantea and the dating of Irish Wedge Tombs. Journal of Irish Archaeology 17, 1-17.

Waddell, J. 1990. The Prehistoric Archaeology of Ireland. Galway.

Cite this post as:

Mount, C. The two burial traditions of the beaker period in Ireland. The Charles Mount Blog, August 11, 2011.

Version 1.1: revised 4/10/2011