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