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.
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
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. http://charles-mount.ie/wp/?p=484