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.
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