Digging up art
Bronze bog hoard
tv in ba
Editor Mike Pitts
Treasure in the bog
Richard Warner, Philip Macdonald and John Ó Néill report on a particularly unusual group of Bronze Age objects found at Tamlaght, Co Armagh
Several archaeologists up to their elbows in gloopy peat in February does not sound much like the Time Team image of an excavation, especially as they were all aware that the ‘treasure’ whose burial details they were there to discover had already been removed and was lying in the Ulster Museum’s conservation laboratory. But so important was this find it was imperative that, discomfort notwithstanding, the excavators should recover proof of its discovery and every possible surviving detail of its context.
There were several reasons for this, in addition to normal good practice. In the first place Irish archaeologists seldom get the chance to excavate Bronze Age hoard sites – the overwhelming majority of known hoards are quite without any useful recorded context. Secondly, two of the objects in this find were unique in Ireland – indeed in the British Isles. Thirdly, this was a ‘treasure-hunted’ find, and although we had no reason to doubt the veracity of the finder, others might not be so trusting. Finally it is the first find consisting of several bronze objects to have turned up in Northern Ireland since the new version of the Treasure Act came into force that widens the definition of ‘treasure’ to include non-precious metals.
The objects comprise a bronze sword of the Late Bronze Age leaf-shaped blade variety; a bronze bowl containing a fragmentary bronze cup; and a small bronze ring. They had been carefully placed in a roughly north-south line in the surface of the bog, parallel to and about a metre away from its edge. There were no traces of disturbance and nothing to suggest that they had accompanied a burial. Nor were the objects buried in a way or in a location that would imply an intention to recover them. Many Bronze Age objects, of bronze and gold, have been found in Irish bogs, and although one is always wary of the ritual explanation it seems quite justified in this case.
The sword is an early, purely Irish type which, by comparison with the reliable British metalwork chronology, ought to date to the centuries either side of 1,100 bc. The other examples of this type cluster around Lough Neagh, suggesting a local workshop.
Interestingly less than a kilometre from the find-spot of the hoard is an artificial ‘ritual’ pond (the King’s Stables) which excavation some years ago showed was dug between about 1,150 and 1,000 bc. Associated with this pond were many fragments of clay moulds for the manufacture of bronze leaf-shaped swords. Unfortunately these were too fragmentary to determine whether the swords made in them belonged to the Tamlaght type but the likely date of the sword fits the date bracket for the pond.
Most exciting are the two small bronze vessels, quite unique for the British Isles. The types represented – a Fuchsstadt bowl and a Jenisovice cup – are widely distributed over central Europe, from France to the Carpathians and north to Denmark. The bowl probably originated in south-east Germany and the cup in the area around the Czech Republic. Where they occasionally occur together in their homeland – in graves and hoards – the contexts belong to the phase called Hallstatt B1, now believed to date to the 11th century bc.
The bowl was well-preserved, but the cup it contained was in many fragments and seemingly impossible to reconstruct - until we noticed that both shape and decoration had been recorded by the peat that had trickled into the bowl and hardened. A company specialising in laser tomography, Kestrel3D, produced three-dimensional laser images of the peat surfaces which will assist us greatly.
The vessels’ certain date confirms our suspected date for the sword, and gives a firm date for an important Irish Late Bronze Age metalwork stage (the ‘Roscommon phase’). As we have seen above, this is also the date of the ritual pond not far away. Even more interesting is that a large, triple-ditched hillfort less than a kilometre away, Haughey’s Fort, was also built and occupied between 1,150 and 1,000 bc, as recent excavation has showed. This hillfort gives us a fine context for the person who owned the sword and bowls, or for those who buried them. The Late Bronze Age landscape of this small piece of Co Armagh is now one of the most interesting in these islands.
Warner is keeper of archaeology and ethnography and acting head of the Division Of Human History, Ulster Museum, Belfast. Macdonald and Ó Néill are fieldwork directors at the Centre for Archaeological Fieldwork, School of Archaeology and Palaeoecology, Queen’s University, Belfast
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005