From around 2500 BC the knowledge of working gold and copper ushered in a new period of cultural development in Ireland and the practice of depositing objects in hoards throughout the Bronze Age has ensured a rich resource for the Museum’s collections of bronze weapons and gold ornaments.
The crescent-shaped neck ornament known as the Lunula is perhaps the most characteristic Irish Early Bronze Age gold object, of which there are more than 50 examples in the collection. Early metalsmiths also produced discs and other objects of gold as well as a host of copper and bronze tools and weapons such as axes, daggers, spearheads and halberds. Over 2,000 Early Bronze Age axeheads alone have been found, of which the vast majority are in the Museum’s collections.
During the earlier Bronze Age inhumation burial in small cemeteries was the practice, with the dead usually being accompanied by a pottery vessel or sometimes a number of vessels. Over 1,300 graves have been discovered. As a result, the collection is particularly rich in Early Bronze Age pottery, especially so-called Food Vessels, of which there are over 700 examples. There are also larger funerary vessels known as Urns, of which about 200 exist, and about 70 miniature vessels.
During the later part of the Bronze Age there was a decline in the art of pottery-making, perhaps linked to changes in burial practices that made the production of funerary pottery largely redundant. However, with advances in metalworking technology and a growth in wealth, there was an increase in the range and complexity of the objects produced by the smiths and an increase in the numbers that were deposited in hoards by wealthy owners. An exceptional hoard of bronze objects from Dowris, Co. Offaly comprised a total of perhaps 218 objects that included swords, spearheads, axes, gouges, knives, razors, cauldrons, buckets, horns, crotals and other miscellaneous objects. At Mooghaun North, Co. Clare a huge hoard of gold ornaments was discovered in 1854. Most of the estimated 146 objects found were bracelets but the find included seven neck ornaments, two ingots and two inter-looped rings. The quantity of Late Bronze Age objects in the collection may be indicated by the fact that over 200 hoards of metalwork have been found, and to this number must be added a considerable number of single stray finds as well as antiquities found during the course of archaeological excavations.
Peat bogs have proven a rich source of Bronze Age objects, including organic objects such as wooden block wheels from Doogarymore, Co. Roscommon and a woollen garment decorated with horsehair tassels used to wrap a votive hoard of bronze objects at Cromaghs, Co. Antrim.
In a number of instances graduated necklaces containing large amber beads have been discovered and one such find from Cogran, Co. Offaly may have contained as many as 160 beads, the raw material for which was found in the Baltic area of northern Europe. The excavation of Late Bronze Age crannóg sites at Ballinderry, Co. Offaly, Knocknalappa, Co. Clare and Lough Gara, Co. Sligo has added further material of an organic nature to the collections, including a range of domestic artefacts.