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[The True Origins of Irish Society Copyright © 2003 by Desmond Keenan
Hard copy of book available from and]

Chapter Five

                 The Bronze Age

Summary. As society developed during the period of adoption of metals a surplus of production appeared as manifested by the collections of precious objects. There was greater emphasis of the private  ownership of wealth. Warfare with pillaging increased, and society became polarised into the rich and the poor, the chiefs and the workers. The chiefs were the leaders of the warbands and tended to be drawn from a handful of rich powerful families. The horse and chariot were used in warfare. There were developments of religion in the Near East. In Eastern Europe, groups speaking a common language, later called Indo-European, began to spread over Europe, the Middle East, and into India. Despite the warfare and social injustice, Ireland enjoyed an optimum period for agriculture and the production of gold.



Characteristics of the Bronze Age

The Bronze Age in the Middle East and Russia

Religion in the Middle East in Bronze Age

The Bronze Age in Europe

The Indo-European Speakers.

Bronze Age in Central Europe

Bronze Age in Britain and Ireland

Irish Society in the Bronze Age


Characteristics of the Bronze Age

            It should always be kept in mind what we stressed in an earlier chapter that in many ways life in Ireland changed little from the earliest Neolithic period until the beginning of the nineteenth century. This was above all true for the bulk of the people, the ordinary workers in the fields. Changes there would have been in detail. The climate would have become noticeably colder. The population would have increased, but if the only the population for cultivated acre is counted, the increase in density might not have been so great. The disappearance of the forests would have struck a traveller from the Neolithic period more than the density of the local population. Ploughs drawn by animals would have been more common, but cultivation with the shovel still continued. The buildings would have been of stone or mud with thatch instead of wood with thatch. A visitor from the Neolithic period into the Bronze Age would have noticed far fewer changes. An individual living within the period, with a short lifespan of thirty to forty years might notice no significant changing.   

The Bronze Age, apart from the significance of the use of metals, is important to us for other reasons. The first was the increasing intensification of agriculture to feed a growing population. Another was the spread of the Indo-European speech which is now used by the vast majority of the people of Europe, and in its English, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian and French forms is spoken or understood by a majority of people in the world. A third was the beginning of the use of the horse in warfare and consequently the beginning of the military aristocracies which were to dominate history for the future.

            Free copper had been discovered about 8000 BC. Like gold it is a soft metal, and it would have been a precious metal. It was found that hammering could produce a hard edge, so it became possible to make edged tools from it. About 6000 BC the technique of melting and casting copper was discovered. Probably about 1000 years after melting and casting was discovered, the smelting of copper ore was discovered. This involved the heating of copper ore along with charcoal that removed the oxygen and other substances from the ore. This was a momentous discovery from which nearly all the metal in use in the modern world is derived. At the time though it was scarcely noticed. This was followed by another discovery. If the ore of copper was smelted mixed with a small quantity of the ore of tin, a superior form of copper could be produced. Not only could it be produced at a lower temperature, but also it could be easily cast, and hardened better than if only copper ore was used. The resulting amalgam was called bronze. It appeared about the same time in the Near East and on the Danube.  Tin is not found in many places, so mining explorers had to set out to find sources. The manufacture of bronze was a very complicated and lucrative business, and the knowledge would have been carefully concealed within the membership of the local kin-group. We should not underestimate the enormous amount of experimentation and observation that went into the development of metallurgy, nor the amount of exploration necessary to discover the ores, and the amount of trading necessary to get the right ores.

            The full development of the trends in the late Neolithic Period both in east and west came in the Bronze Age.  The discovery of metal was one of the achievements of Neolithic period. The smelting and use of bronze metal was only one of a series of improvements and developments, but it was the characteristic one and the most easily recognisable. Great cities and temples were developed, complex structures erected, and great public works of irrigation undertaken. The Bronze Age is regarded as commencing about 3,000 BC in the Near East and lasting until about 1,200 BC. Within this timespan there flourished the cultures of Sumer, of Akkad, the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms in Egypt, the Minoan civilisation in Crete, the city of Troy, and the Mycenian culture in Greece, and the Bronze Age cultures of Central Europe and British Isles. However, unlike the Neolithic culture that was more or less uniform everywhere, there were great variations in development in the Bronze Age.

             Towns themselves developed in the Neolithic period, even before the invention of pottery, but they reached their full flowering in the age of metal. The name city is misleading, for by our standards they were quite small towns with perhaps no more than a thousand inhabitants within their bounds. (As often, the meaning of a word in English is derived from the Latin bible where a town or even a village might be described as a city.) Nevertheless, city state would be a better name for them, for all the land necessary to grow the food to sustain the inhabitants necessarily surrounded the city. The city state was very like the Irish territorial unit the tuath, and are of perhaps twenty miles by twenty miles of cultivated land. Julius Caesar used the term civitas for such units in Gaul. The big difference was that there was an urban nucleus of a few thousand people devoted primarily to manufacture, exchange, and trade, or which possessed temples or permanent cult centres to which outsiders flocked. Only very great cities like Rome could import food from abroad. Even up to the end of the Middle Ages in Europe the great merchants in the towns had their country estates. Viking settlements too always had to have an area of surrounding country that could be cultivated (Coles and Harding 27).

            In the Middle East Bronze Age civilisations reached their peak about 1200 BC. The divergence in development which was noticeable towards the end of the Neolithic period became more marked during the Bronze Age. In the Middle East the great city cultures and empires developed while in Europe cities did not even begin. As far as Central and Western Europe are concerned, the Bronze Age is usually divided into Early Bronze, Middle or Tumulus Bronze, and Late Bronze or Early Urnfield. These divisions are based solely on the differing styles of bronze artefacts and do not describe pottery, ornaments, or grave forms (Coles and Harding).

The ending of the Bronze Age and beginning of the Iron Age was marked by considerable disturbances and movements of peoples and the decline of the great empires. These were renewed sometimes from different centres in the following millennium as the historic Assyria, Persian, Greek, and Roman Empires. Outside the great cities life continued more or less unchanged. In good years life for the ordinary people could be quite comfortable. Because of limited facilities for storage or trading a succession of bad harvests or pestilences inevitably brought famine. Towards the end of the Bronze Age in northern Europe warfare seems to have become more common and defensive works more in evidence. This may in part at least have been caused by the Indo-European expansion. Burning of crops and houses, driving off cattle, looting stores was always part of warfare, and always brought famine and fever in its wake. It would seem for the most part that the aim of a war was for the most part to reduced the local rulers to the status of tribute-paying vassals and to destroy the productive capacity of the peasants. During these centuries, especially towards the end of the Bronze Age the climate changed in Northern and Western Europe and there was probably a considerable depopulation (Coles and Harding 475ff). The retreat would have been from the more marginal areas at higher altitudes or from regions subject to flooding. [Top]

The Bronze Age in the Middle East and Russia.

The Cultivated Lands in the Fertile Crescent        

The first Bronze civilisation was that of the Sumerians who lived at Sumer in the delta of the Tigris and Euphrates. As they invented writing, theirs is the first culture of which we have historical knowledge. The Sumerians were originally a people in the mountains to the east of Mesopotamia who spoke a language unrelated to any other. Mesopotamia was the name the Greeks gave to the land between the great rivers, the Euphrates and Tigris where water was abundant. Like the Nile, these rivers rose as the snows melted on the mountains where they rose. They developed a city culture based on irrigation and temples in the late Neolithic Period. Their close neighbours to the north were the Akkadians who spoke a variant of the common Semitic language of the region. At first the Sumerian language and culture were dominant and to them is assigned the honour of developing the culture called Bronze Age. However, it could equally well have been called the city culture, the writing culture, the wheel culture, the irrigation or food-surplus culture, the sailing ship culture, or the military culture of the well-organised army. One of their cities was Ur, called in the Bible Ur of the Chaldees, the home of Abraham (Genesis 11, 28), though by the time of Abraham dominion had long passed to Akkad.

            The Akkadians were the people who occupied the middle stretch of the Tigris. The first great military ruler we know of is Sargon I of Akkad c. 2300 BC. As writing had by then been invented and lists of kings kept it was possible to work out a rough chronology based on regnal years from that day to this. By this time too a full calendar had been worked out and a lunar cycle of between 18 and 19 years established. When precisely this calendar had been worked out, and whether it had been in use in Ireland when Newgrange was built we do not know; all we know is when it was written down.

            Abraham, the ancestor of the Jews, can be dated about 1800 BC, but according to the traditions about him he was of western Semitic, Amorite or Aramean speech. Accounts of him fit in with what we know of the Bronze Age in the region. After his departure from Harran on the upper Euphrates he and his family lived as nomadic pastoralists in the land of Canaan where there were already several towns. Besides his flocks and herds including camels he had much silver and gold. The weapons of his followers were doubtless made of bronze, though this is not mentioned. He bought a field from the Hittites at Hebron for 400 shekels of silver. Besides the making of ornaments the precious metals were being used as a medium of exchange. The shekel was not a coin but a unit of weight. The shekel was the standard of weight in Mesopotamia, and the cubit the standard of measurement. According the traditions of the Hebrews God promised the land of the Canaanites (later called Palestine after the Philistines) to his descendants. Abraham's son was called Isaac and his son was called Jacob, or alternatively Israel.

            The Hittites themselves were newcomers to the Near East. Their language was Indo-European, but like many of the Indo-Europeans, it would seem that they were a ruling military class. Their principal kingdom was in Asia Minor but enclaves of them were spread over the Near East. Uriah the Hittite was one of King David's soldiers. After his murder, his wife Bathsheba became one of David’s wives, and their son Solomon succeeded David to the throne. (It should be remembered that these Biblical accounts were the only accounts anyone in Ireland or in the rest of Europe had of the Bronze Age). The Hittite over-lordship in Asia Minor began about 1900 BC as part of the early Indo-European expansion when they invaded Greece and Iran and probably made to advance towards Eastern Europe. After 1380 the Hittite kingdom expanded into a great military empire, and came into sharp conflict with Egypt over the control of Syria. Their empire was overthrown at the very end of the Bronze Age about 1200 BC by the 'Sea Peoples' in a period of great disturbance in the Near East. The fact that there was no military force in over-all control of Palestine made the settlement of the tribes of Israel in Palestine and the establishment of the Davidic kingdom possible. The Hittites were the first recorded examples of groups of warriors from the steppes invading the cultivated lands of the Fertile Crescent. The Goths, Arabs, and Turks are later examples.

            Another group of speakers of an Indo-European dialect spread into the mountainous region to the east of Sumer and Akkad in Mesopotamia. These were part of the great expansion of Indo-European-speakers and were called Medes and Persians, and were to have a great influence in the Middle East until the Arab invasion two millennia later. Their language survives in Iran and Kurdistan. Other Indo-Europeans went further and spread their language over large parts of India. This is the reason why this group of languages is called Indo-European. 

            Central to the Bible story is the land of Egypt.  A great civilisation developed in Egypt in the Neolithic period. There began also a great production of copper. But as writing had not been developed, all we know about it comes from archaeology. It became a great and rich culture and military power in the Bronze Age. Just before the First Dynasty (c. 2950 BC) writing was introduced, and a unified monarchy. (The so-called First Dynasty is in fact the first recorded dynasty.) The narrow strip of cultivated land stretching for nearly a thousand miles along the Nile was politically unified under rulers called pharaohs. What was called the Old Kingdom commenced just after 2575 BC. The fact that the Nile was easily navigable produced a common culture in the cultivated strip and facilitated uniform central government.  It is chiefly famous for it pyramids and for the Sphinx. The pyramids were built roughly at the same time as Newgrange, but Egypt was by that time in the Bronze Age. The Bronze Age culture in Egypt was essentially the same as in Mesopotamia and was derived from it. Some earlier archaeologists thought that all European cultures, including the Irish, were derived from Bronze Age Egypt, but this view is no longer accepted. The great development of Egyptian culture was in the Bronze Age. After a period of decline and fragmentation the Middle Kingdom began about 2100 BC. In the seventeenth century BC Egypt was invaded by Semitic peoples known as the Hyksos who had by that time learned to use the horse in warfare. With the aid of their chariots they established a short-lived dynasty. From them the pharaohs learned the use of horses and chariots familiar to every student of the Bible.

            The New Kingdom was formed about 1570 BC and lasted until 1070 BC. From a military point of view this was the first and indeed only time when Egypt tried to gain an empire by means of foreign conquest. As the Hittites to the north in Asia Minor were also expanding their empire at the same time the two became locked in an epic struggle that was ended when the Sea Peoples conquered both briefly. The culture of Egypt was typical of the middle and late bronze periods, but it had also its own very distinctive local character.

            During this period, to escape famine in the land of Canaan, the Children of Israel who had continued the nomadic life of Abraham in the semi-desert parts of Palestine, went down into the land of Egypt. (The form of the name Children or Sons of Israel is the same as the form Ui Neill in Irish and denotes a group of families with a common ancestor.) Crop failure and consequent famine can occur any time, but Egypt produced abundant crops of cereals, and grain could easily be stored from one year to the next in the dry Egyptian climate 

            About 1270 BC Moses led the Children of Israel out of Egypt into the desert. At that time neither they nor the Egyptians possessed iron. The metals that Moses commanded to be used in making the sacred furnishings were gold, silver, and bronze. The serpent he erected in the desert was made of bronze. The precious metals he listed which had to be purified by fire after being captured from their enemies were gold, silver, bronze, iron, tin and lead (Numbers 31,21). Copper is not mentioned though obviously it was known for it was used with either tin or lead to make bronze. Meteoric iron had been known for a long time, but it was very scarce and precious. (It maybe however that the reference to iron is anachronistic and justified the later practice of religiously purifying metal objects by means of fire.) As was recounted in the Bible, the Pharaoh had horses and chariots. So too had the petty kings of the Canaanites. The use of horses and chariots was chiefly for psychological purposes, to provoke panic and stampede. It is one of the immutable facts of warfare that cavalry cannot conquer unbroken infantry provided that the latter stay steady and keep facing their front. A horse is too easily tripped or stabbed in the chest.

            Joshua led them into the land promised by God to Abraham and to his descendants forever. They captured most of the hill country but failed to capture the cities as they had no skill in siege warfare. Their organisation was very typical of the emerging chiefdoms of the late Neolithic and Early Bronze periods. It consisted of twelve tribes or groups of related families. We can assume that there were associated to each family various servants, farm workers, herdsmen, and slaves who were not related to them by blood, as was the case with Abraham's followers. They were grouped around a central shrine. For purposes of clearing the forests and occupying land they operated separately, but for purposes of defence they appointed leaders whom they called judges.       

            The Davidic monarchy was established in Palestine about 1000 BC, roughly about the time of the Bishopsland phase in the Late Bronze period in Ireland, but the beginning of the Iron Age in the Middle East. 

            The last centre of development in the Bronze Age in the Middle East was the Aegean. The first great development was at Minos or the island of Crete. The earliest inscriptions have not been interpreted and it is not known in what language they are written. Later inscriptions reveal an early form of Greek. Mycenae on mainland Greece gradually obtained a superiority over the Minoans. The Mycenians spoke Greek and were presumably the descendants of the Indo-Europeans who arrived in Greece about 2000 BC. According to Homer Mycenae was the city of Agamemnon 'king of men' who led the 'bronze-clad Achaeans' against Troy. Recent discoveries showed that shiploads of precious objects were imported from Asia and Africa.

             The city reached its peak about 1400 BC. About 1200 BC it was apparently overwhelmed by incoming Greeks speaking the Dorian dialect. The incoming Dorians was part of the general disturbance in the Middle East of which the attacks of the 'Sea Peoples' was another part. The use of iron arrived in Greece about the same time.

            Thus by the beginning of the Iron Age in the Middle East the Hebrews, the Greeks, and the Persians, who were to make significant advances in various fields in the Iron Age, were already in position. Further west in the Mediterranean the Italic-speakers, of whom the principals were the Romans, were already in also in position. Written records were becoming common, and with them we have the beginning of history.

            This account of developments in the Middle East are very important, for the great developments in religion, philosophy, law, and so on which were to powerfully influence Christian Ireland originated here. Before that religious ideas had to be purified, and this occurred in the following Iron Age.

Outside the Towns

            The way of life of the Neolithic farmers continued into the Bronze Age, and indeed as far as the ordinary peasants were concerned continued more or less unchanged until the nineteenth century. The Bronze Age brought metal to the richer folk But ordinary people could not afford metal tools, and if any peasant found a metal object there is little doubt that the chief or one of his sons would have found an excuse to confiscate it. Stoneaxes continued in use. Metal pots were too expensive so the older method of seething meat by putting hot stones into water was continued. Over thousands of years the techniques of agriculture developed in the Middle East were adapted to the wetter, colder forested parts of Western Europe and to the cold dry grasslands of the steppes of Eastern Europe. In many parts of the west the clearing of forests produced soils which rapidly degraded and became unusable and became covered with heath and bogs until the present day. On the other hand the light ploughs and poor drainage prevented the cultivation of the great lowland forests. We can assume that the attempt was made to clear and cultivate the lowland forests. However, no real sustained effort was made in this direction until the Middle Ages. Large parts of Western Europe required drainage on a vast scale and much of this was not attempted in Ireland until the second half of the nineteenth century. The economy became mixed with the emphasis on the rearing of wetland animals like cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs

            Because of their enormous importance in history, then and later, a special section must be devoted to the pastoral nomads. Special sections will also be devoted to the various stages of the Bronze Age in Europe, but bearing in mind that for many there was little change from the Neolithic Age.

The Pastoral Nomads

            . On the dryer steppes the emphasis was on desert animals like horses and camels. Where the rainfall was very inadequate tillage was virtually absent. The camel proved supreme in the deserts, but on the steppes the horse proved the most useful. It was essential for warfare. Its flesh could be eaten and the milk of the mares drunk .We have noted above the arrival of two groups of Indo-European-speakers in the Middle East, the area of writing, namely the Hittites, and the Medes and Persians. Who were these peoples who left no written records in their native lands? The culture of the Bronze Age spread from the Fertile Crescent and its parallel development in the North China Plain outwards to the Neolithic pastoralists in the great grasslands and semi-deserts that surrounded those fairly limited areas where the abundance of water allowed intensive cultivation of the soil. From the European point of view these can be divided into three great linguistic groups, the Indo-European, Turkic or Altaic, and Hamito-Semitic. The great division in the Altaic languages was into Turkic and Mongolian. Hamito-Semitic included Hebrew, Arabic, Egyptian, Ethiopian and Berber.  (Another group of pastoralists, the Bantu-speakers, was not encountered by the Europeans until the nineteenth century. They included groups like the Matabele and the Zulus.)

            It is clear from what has been said above that the boundaries between the nomads and the cultivators of the river plains were not a sharp one. Abraham moved from being a townsman to being a nomad, and his descendants later settled in Egypt, returned to nomadism, and finally settled down to cultivate Palestine and capture the cities of the Canaanites. The Turks were not pure wanderers on the steppes and semi-deserts. They grew strong in Kazakstan where there was a secondary riverine culture and which lay on the great trade route across Asia, the Silk Road. The Mongolians developed just to the north of the North China Plain. At first the Mongolians or Mongols seem to have been subordinated to the Turkish or Hunnish peoples but afterwards dominated many branches of them. The Hamito-Semitic nomads lay to the south of the Fertile Crescent but in this case their languages were just variants of those of the city peoples in Mesopotamia and Egypt. The Israelites in Palestine were often raided by desert peoples who spoke closely related languages. The Berbers, also speaking a variant of Hamito-Semitic, inhabited both the fertile lands on the southern Mediterranean shore and the oases of the interior. The speakers of southern Semitic, which developed into Arabic, were in the great peninsula, now called the Arabian Peninsula. The Arabic-speakers, now called Arabs, were like the Turks closely connected with the trade routes. (It must always be stressed that these groupings are linguistic and that the differences in economies derived largely from the presence or absence of water. The physical differences between the Mongolians and Chinese were not great, nor those between the Indo-Europeans and Turks and Arabs.)

Apart from the Indo-Europeans the Turks, Mongols, and Arabs did not affect Europe until the later Roman period, but it is useful to remember that they were always there. China commenced building the Great Wall against them before 200 BC. North east of the Roman Empire were obscure peoples called by the Greeks Cimmerians and Scythians. (As usual we can assume that these descriptions applied to the ruling castes so there was probably no real difference between them.) The Scythians spoke an Indo-European language, as we would expect and had iron weapons The Cimmerians too probably spoke an Indo-European language. A branch of them called Parthians later conquered Iran in Roman times. Another group called Sarmations began to conquer southern Russia from the 5th century BC onwards. Scythians and Sarmations spoke varieties of the Iranian language. This language was also spoken in Turkistan where Turkish was later to prevail. Other peoples like the Thracians and Lydians spoke similar languages before the spread of Greek. It is reasonable to conclude that over southern Russia, versions of the Iranian language were spoken, Russian itself spreading at a much later date from Central Europe possibly from Lithuania. The western branch of the Indo-European language from which European languages are derived would have come from further north in the steppes.

 From the Neolithic Period onwards they always had contact with the technological advances made in the riverine cultures to the east and south. Lack of natural boundaries, immense distances, and a social structure that facilitated the gathering of vast armies from related or subjugated tribes were to make them formidable in Europe and the Middle East for over three thousand years.

            This period to a considerable extent coincides with the Sub-Boreal Period, a cooler dryer period more under the influence of the Siberian than the Atlantic winds. It favoured the growth of grass rather than forest, and water would have been scarcer, wells and springs further apart, and with many rivers being only seasonal. It favoured the horse relative to the ox and the camel relative to the ass. The early Bronze Age culture spread northward to the Russian farmers. In this region, at this time, but unconnected with the spread of metal was a new development. This was the taming of the horse, first to make it amenable first to the drawing of chariots, and then to carrying men on its back. It seems that the use of the horse to draw war chariots originated on the steppes, the most likely centre being the Kurgan culture. Though not at the time noticeably larger or stronger than the closely related species the ass, and in many ways more delicate, the chief advantage of the horse seems to have been its swifter gait. For one reason or another it became the preferred animal on the dryer steppes where forest animals like cows did not thrive.

 On the Russian steppes a purely pastoral or animal-rearing culture had developed from among the original Neolithic Pontic farmers. From the remains of their burial mounds near the Russian city of Kurgan they were called the Kurgan pastoralists. They had developed the techniques of herding animals and also the domestication of the horse.  The wealth accumulated in their graves indicates that the old semi-equality of society had ended and that there were rich leaders or military chiefs who ruled over them and got most of the wealth. As the grasslands spread on the steppes during the dryer Sub-boreal period the Kurgan pastoralists moved westward. The culture had spread to the Caucasus and South Eastern Europe by 2,200 BC. [Top]          

Religion in the Middle East in Bronze Age

            The religion of the great city or temple states of the Middle East has been described in the last chapter for, concerning religion, the late Stone Age and the Bronze Age may be considered as one. The related mythology would have been more or less as we described for the Neolithic Period. Use of the earlier shrines continued well into the Bronze Age. The tendency at this period was to construct wooden henges or circles. If Eamhain Macha was a cult site we would expect that the myth of the dying and rising god was still connected with it. The legend of the Red Branch knights would have been attached to it long after, probably several hundred years after, it had ceased to be used as a shrine.

            The basic ideas of a sky god and an earth goddess and an annual rite to ensure the fertility of the earth may be regarded as all-pervasive. It does not mean that the myths and the rituals were identical everywhere. On the contrary we would expect considerable diversion not to say perversion. In the city states of Palestine and among the surrounding nomads the participation of every worshipper in full sexual acts both of natural and homosexual kinds seems to have been widespread.  The Golden Calf or Heifer of the Hebrews seems to have been connected with the same cycle of ideas though not necessarily typical of the religion of the descendants of Abraham.

            The religion of the Hebrews originated in an apparition to Abraham the nomadic Aramean (Deut. 26.5). There was nothing unusual in such an apparition, for looking out for communications from various divinities was an essential part of religion from the beginning, and indeed remained common up to the beginning of Christianity and beyond. The manifestation of the divine to Jacob, grandson of Abraham, has been recounted earlier. The biblical account of the first communication of God to Abraham is very brief and lacking in details. The God whom the Hebrews called Yahweh appeared to Abraham and told him to leave his father’s land, Ur of the Chaldeans (which belonged to the Sumerian culture on the Euphrates) and go into a land which God would show him, namely that called Canaan, Palestine, or Israel. Abraham came to the oak of Moreh near Sechem and there built an altar to Yahwah (Genesis 12).

The three great Hebrew festivals that date from this period, mark the first fruits or beginning of the harvest and the lambing season, the completion of the harvest, and the vintage. These were not part of the apparition or revelation to Abraham but were those common to the local people at the time. (But because the Jews later came out of Egypt at the time of the Passover the festival of first fruits received an entirely different complexion. Later with the Christians it received yet another complexion.) The first, called Passover, was fixed on the 14th day of the first moon after the spring equinox in accordance with the Babylonian calendar, a decision that was to have enormous consequences for the world.). The Hebrews too made a pilgrimage, or festival procession, to the local shrine on these occasions. In Ireland, as in Greece and Palestine, there were probably sacred or amphictyonic leagues gathered about a particular important shrine. In Palestine and in Greece the usual number of petty states gathered about the shrine was twelve, and this also have been the case in Ireland. Such an arrangement would facilitate the assembly of the numbers required to construct the great earthworks. Before the establishment of the Davidic monarchy in Jerusalem at the beginning of the Iron Age in the Middle East the central shrine of the twelve tribes was at Shiloh, and consisted of the Tent of the Lord and the Ark of the Covenant. Israel even at its greatest extent was only half the size of Ireland. A portable sacred tent and shrine were appropriate for a nomadic people even if it remained in a fixed spot after the Israelites conquered and managed to hold on to the Promised Land.

             There was a very close connection between religion and warfare and those going to war purified themselves as before going to worship. As David pointed out, members of a warband were sufficiently purified to eat the sacred bread (1 Sam 21.5). Their God was called Yahweh Sabaoth, the Lord of the Warbands. (Yahweh seems to be connected etymologically with the verb to ‘be’ and most likely means something like 'He who is', a circumlocution to avoid pronouncing the name of the god. The Hebrews later went further and refused to pronounce Yahweh, and substituted the word Lord. The vowel signs added to the manuscripts to warn readers of this substitution later led to the misspelling Jehovah.) [Top]

The Bronze Age in Europe

Eastern and Southern Europe

            The whole of Europe had been occupied in the Neolithic Period though the density of population was low. Various ‘cultures’ were identified by means of the remains of pottery or metal, like the so-called ‘Corded Ware’ or ‘Bell Beaker’ people, though all that these remains tell us is that a certain style of pottery was used in a particular region. It tells us nothing about the social organisation, or the languages spoken, or whether they were under one chief or several. The idea prevalent in the last century of successive waves of invaders wiping out their predecessors has been abandoned. (This theory was especially espoused by the Social Darwinists, who believed in constant warfare between different races, and the survival of the fittest. This view culminated in National Socialism in Germany, and had been discredited ever since.) Wherever written inscriptions are found an idea is given of the particular language spoken in that place at that time, at least by some of the people.  Consider what we can deduce from a Latin inscription at Hadrian’s Wall.

            The early Bronze Age in Greece started soon after 3000 BC. The city of Troy on the opposite side of the Aegean Sea was commenced about the same time. Towards the end of the Early Bronze period, perhaps about 2000 BC among the first waves of Indo-Europeans, were the ‘bronze-clad Achaeans’ speaking a dialect of Greek. They arrived in Greece from southern Russia. Other Greeks speaking the Ionian dialect followed them. Their culture became fused with the city culture on the island of Crete and was called Mycenian. In the Late Bronze Age about 1200 BC in a very disturbed period, more Greeks speaking the Dorian dialect arrived. Their arrival coincided with the beginning of the Iron Age and the collapse of the Mycenian civilisation. The Trojan War, made famous by Homer, belongs to this time. With the Trojan War comes the first remote beginnings of history in Europe. It was not written at first, but was composed in verse that was afterwards written down. As the Latin poet put it

Vixere fortes ante Agemnona

Multi, sed omnes illacrimabiles

Urgentur, ignotique longa

Nocte, carent quia vate sacro

(Many heroes lived before Agamemnon but died unwept and passed into the long night unknown because they had no poet to write about them). The Homeric poems are the first accounts we have of the Indo-European warriors. In the Mycenian period around 1500 BC Bronze Age culture reached a peak which it was not to attain to again for another thousand years. The Mycenian culture of course belongs to the region of the city culture of the Middle East, not that of the steppes, but it provides an early example of the steppe-dwellers conquering a city culture and adopting it. The language spoken was an early form of Greek.

            Though Italy was relatively well populated in the Bronze Age there was nothing remarkable about the culture. There were no large towns, no empires, and no great hoards of precious objects or rich grave burials, no writings or inscriptions. There was however some rock art, figures largely of animals with some matchstick human figures carved on rocks. [Top]

The Indo-European Speakers.

            It was the western spread of the Indo-European-speakers that was to prove the most important for world history though the contributions of the Turks and Arabs were not small.  It cannot be stressed too often that Indo-European is a language not a people. The speakers of the language, Proto-Indo-European, originated among the pastoral nomads of the Russian steppes, but adopted the settled life in Europe. Or perhaps we should say they adopted the role of a ruling elite, leaving the native peasants to do their work as they had always done. As will be stressed again when we deal with the Celtic-speakers, there is no known or proven connection between the language and any particular group, culture, or art form. Just as with the English language today, people of widely differing origins and cultures could have used a common language. Historically well-attested warrior groups spoke various Indo-European languages and this led to the theory that conquering warrior bands spread the language. They may have helped its spread. However, there is no way of knowing whether the primary agents of the spread of the language were warriors, traders, artisans, or priests. Hilaire Belloc once said that the reason why the English language and not British or Latin was adopted in England, was that St Augustine arrived at the court of a local chief at Canterbury in Kent who spoke neither British nor Latin. As the re-organisation of the Church spread so too did the use of English. The English chiefs then kept their own language instead of adopting the more developed Latin or British. The theory is tenable.

            The question is often asked too, and there is no answer to it, when did the Indo-European-speakers reach Central Europe? There are no inscriptions. Gordon Childe suggested that the beakers of the Beaker Folk (c. 2200 BC) represented the spread of the Indo-Europeans. In this case they would have been in occupation of Central Europe during the whole of the Bronze Age. On the other hand, as Coles and Harding point out, there is little in the Late Bronze Age Urnfield cultures (c 1200 BC) to connect them with the historical Celts who are usually associated with the use of iron. They take the view that the Celticization of Central Europe was a gradual process. There was no cultural break between the Tumulus (Middle Bronze Age 1800-1500 BC) and Urnfield cultures (Late Bronze; op. cit. p. 367; also below).

             On the other hand, as Italic speakers crossed the Alps into Italy about 1000 BC at the very beginning of the Iron Age in Italy, there seems little doubt that Indo-European speakers were present in Central Europe by the Urnfield Period. The further or secondary spread of the Celtic-speakers to the west, the Italic speakers to the south, the Germanic-speakers to the north, and the Slavic-speakers to the east, would have occurred during the Iron Age. This secondary spread perhaps came from a focal point in Central Europe. In the late Iron Age, at the time of Greek domination of the Middle East, their neighbours to the north in the Balkans and southern Russia were the Scythians, and later Sarmations, whose languages belonged to the Iranian branch of the Indo-European family.

            "The original meanings of only a limited number of hypothetical Proto-Indo-European words can be stated with much certainty; derivatives of these words occur with consistent meanings in most Indo-European languages. This small vocabulary suggests a New Stone Age or perhaps an early metal-using culture with farmers and domestic animals. The identity and location of this culture have been the object of much speculation. Archaeological discoveries in the 1960s, however, suggest the prehistoric Kurgan culture. Located in the steppes west of the Ural Mountains between 5000 and 3000 BC, this culture had diffused as far as eastern Europe and northern Iran by about 2000 BC" (Microsoft Encarta.95, Indo-European Languages.)

            So from the various facts it is reasonable to conclude that the use of bronze was adopted by various pastoralists on the Russian steppes about the same time as the horse was domesticated for use in war. The horse and the partly metal chariot gave a great advantage in war and led to the development of warlike societies. Among these the most successful was a group who spoke Proto-Indo-European. Over the next two millennia warbands who adopted their language, their method of warfare, and their social organisation spread themselves from the Atlantic to the Punjab. Their spread into Central Asia was blocked by a similar development among Turkish-speakers. Their advance into the Fertile Crescent was checked as the city states in those areas themselves adopted the horse and chariot and was not successful until the time of Alexander the Great  (333BC).

            It is most likely that the spread of the Indo-European languages was caused by conquering warrior elites and not by traders or priests or simple colonisation because the spread of the language seems to have been accompanied by the spread of the use of the horse in warfare. Nevertheless, the other methods of diffusion are not excluded. The spread of the Italic language into Italy from Central Europe may have been the result of a colonisation not unlike the later spread of the Vikings.

            The term 'Indo-European' refers to a group of languages, not to a race, or people, or a style of political organisation, or culture, or style of art, or technique of manufacture. What we are referring to is a group of warrior peoples, who spoke a common language, or related languages, who possessed a common culture, and who spread out in all directions from a common centre conquering where they went. However, like the later Arabs they merely established over-lordships and bequeathed their languages. Great numbers were not necessarily involved. Philologists have concluded that a single Indo-European language existed about 3,000 BC, but by 2,000 BC had split into at least Greek, Hittite, and Sanskrit. We could therefore place the beginning of Indo-European expansion from a centre in southern Russia at or shortly after 3,000 BC.  Since Greek had split off from the parent Indo-European by 2000 BC the parent tongue of the Celtic, Germanic and Italic speakers survived after that date perhaps until 1500 BC before splitting into different languages. It would seem that the initial geographical spread (as distinct from a language splitting into dialects) of the Indo-Europeans from their original centre in Southern Russia, occurred mostly after 2,000 BC.  This original dispersal and the division of the western branch occurred over a period of perhaps five hundred years. This first spread brought them to Greece, into Asia Minor as the Hittites, and into Persia and India where their languages survive to this day.

Common sense would suggest that the geographical dispersion and the linguistic division occurred simultaneously and that geographical separation was largely the cause of the linguistic division. In other words, as the language was spread by a conquering ruling elite the vast bulk of its speakers at any time used it as an adopted language or were the immediate descendants of those who adopted it. Anglo-Saxon and Gaelic were the same language about 1500 BC. So not only have the people in the British Isles common ancestors in the Neolithic farmers but also share a common language which broke into two different streams about 1500 BC. This would have been in Bohemia, where later a Slav dialect became dominant. 

            The spread of the horse and war chariot is associated with Indo-European expansion. The war chariot was chiefly a psychological weapon. It was in fact difficult to do anything from a chariot until the enemy started to flee; then they could be stabbed at will with spears. The tactic was to drive the chariot towards the enemy. It was driven by one man, while the other used his bow to shoot arrows at the enemy ranks. The charioteer had to swerve at the last possible moment to avoid actually hitting the enemy line, for this would cause the horses to stumble and fall, or the chariot to overturn. One of the chief aims of a battle leader was to induce his opponents to panic. Religious rites were directed also at preventing panic in his own ranks. Yet when the tactic was first introduced it was extremely effective, and seems to have contributed to the expansion of the Indo-Europeans. As the tactic was copied by the settled states of the Middle East it became largely ineffective. Joshua showed at the Waters of Merom, the trick was to attack the chariots before they were ready (Joshua 11). But that would fail if a proper look-out was maintained. With the development of cavalry, the use of chariots was discontinued. Nevertheless, the Celtic peoples in the far west maintained their use for a long time. The practice of riding horses seems to have commenced before 1600 BC (Coles and Harding 99). Horses were not used as draught animals and this remained the task of the oxen that now drew wagons with wheels.

The first records in Mesopotamia show the horses and chariots being introduced from the north by Indo-European invaders, chiefly Hittites about 2000 BC. About 2200 BC a different group of these speaking an early form of Greek had reached the Aegean. By 1500 BC they had crossed Persia and invaded India. The horse and the chariot were introduced into Egypt about 1700 BC by the Hyksos invaders, Semitic speakers from Syria and Palestine. As is well known, the Pharaoh of Egypt pursued Moses and the Israelites with horses and chariots which were drowned in the Red Sea (c. 1200 BC) When the Israelites invaded Canaan they conquered the hill country where chariots could not be used, but failed to capture the plains because the local kings had chariots of iron (Judges 1.19). Among those with chariots were the five lords of the Philistines. There were other people from the north called Amorites and Horites (Hurrians) besides the Hittites. Though it might be possible to make chariots and equipment for horses entirely without metal both are much easier to make if metal is available for certain parts.

             This initial expansion was not necessarily great; just sufficient for the local variations in language to grow. By 1000 BC Indo-European war lords with their chariots controlled most of Eastern and Central Europe, eastwards as far as India, and southwards as far as the borders of Egypt. Their spread into Central Europe should therefore be placed between 2000 BC and 1000 BC, namely towards the end of the Bronze Age. As far as Europe is concerned this spread of a warrior culture in the Bronze Age was as significant as the spread of bronze itself; perhaps more so. Oddly, though the poetic sagas refer at length to the use of the chariot there is no archaeological confirmation that chariots were ever used in Ireland. It is extremely unlikely that the chariot was ever used on the wetter soils of northern and western Europe. 

            Persistent attempts have been made to link the spread of the Indo-European languages, with the spread of bronze, the spread of battle-axes, or the spread of art forms. If there are writings or inscriptions in an Indo-European language we can conclude that people speaking those languages were there. Otherwise we cannot. No such inscriptions from central, northern, or Western Europe from the Bronze Age survive. We are left with conjectures. Likewise philologists have given up the attempt to identify different races on the basis of differing pronunciations of certain words. It was long believed that there were two Celtic invasions of Europe, an early one of Q-Celts who ended up in Ireland, and P-Celts who ended up in Wales. It is now realised that this variation can occur at any time and in any branch of the Indo-European linguistic group, and has no significance concerning the speakers.

The area of occupation in Bronze Age Europe was more or less the same as it was in Neolithic times, though the population may have been denser. The manner of life was virtually unchanged, so it is better to conclude that the population was unchanged (Coles and Harding p 8). The spread of Indo-European may have been accompanied by the horse and chariot. At first the Indo-European-speakers with their chariots would have been only a tiny minority of the warrior rulers. Subject peoples can quite rapidly adopt the language of the conqueror. English spread rapidly in England following the departure of the Romans, and also in nineteenth century Ireland. Scholars believe that on balance the evidence favours the hypothesis that the Indo-European Celts, Illyrians, Italics, and others, controlled Central Europe in the Late Bronze Age.

 The origin and spread of the Celts is a particular case of the general problem of the spread of the Indo-Europeans. It is known from the Greek historians that warriors called Keltoi were dominant in Central Europe by the fifth century BC. How before long before that did they arrive?  Or perhaps more accurately when did the linguistic split from the parent Indo-European language occur? It is reasonable to conclude that speakers of Indo-European reached central Europe about 1500 BC and that various changes to form Celtic, Italic, and Germanic, had occurred by the time a secondary dispersion commenced about 1200 BC. Without written inscriptions it is impossible to be more certain. So when the ancestors of German-speakers, Latin-speakers, and Celtic-speakers were all in Central Europe about 1200BC the dialects would have been mutually comprehensible. But a distinct Germanic language was in place by 750 BC and a distinct Celtic one by at least 500 BC, and distinct Latin one by 500 BC. It is now realised too that language differentiation can proceed in bursts, with short periods of rapid change followed by long periods of stability.

             It is now agreed that there was no general movement of population, and that at most a few individuals migrated, spreading the use of metal. These would have belonged not only to those with specialised knowledge of bronze smelting and manufacture, but also those who specialised in working wood, stone, pottery, glass and amber (Coles and Harding 5ff).  More importantly, there would have been the warrior class with their chariots who could easily conquer vast tracts of territory. However, very few, even of the warrior class, would have been pure-blooded Indo-Europeans, even if such had ever existed. The warriors would have taken women, lawfully or unlawfully, wherever they went. They would have recruited others, wherever they went to fill up the body of the army for none but the very rich could afford a chariot. This occupation of Central Europe would have preceded the great expansion into southern, western, and northern Europe from 1,200 BC onwards.  Though it was suggested earlier in this chapter that the initial spread of the Indo-European languages was caused by horse-using warriors this is not necessarily true of the further spread, for example of the Italic-speakers into Italy nor of the Celts into western Europe. Barry Cunliffe considers that there is little in the archaeological record to indicate migrations or conquests in the period 1300-750 BC) and suggests that Celtic had become a lingua franca of the metal-working families (Cunliffe 270).           [Top]

Bronze Age in Central Europe

            In the more western parts of Central Europe, the Low Countries and parts of France there was another group who in addition buried their dead under small round barrows, and who had a characteristically shaped pot which archaeologists called a Bell Beaker. When excavations were first made and skulls measured it was noted that the people buried in long barrows had long skulls and those in round barrows had round skulls. Further excavations showed that the difference was not significant. However many still think there were movements of population similar to that at the end of the Roman Empire and resulting from a similar cause, namely pressure from warriors from the steppes. The earliest of the Beaker folk used flint tools, but later they used copper, and so were responsible for the introduction of metal into the British Isles.

            In Britain, they are always called the Bell Beaker folk and it would seem that by the time they reached England the Bell Beaker and earlier Battle-axe cultures had fused. They also used corded ware. Corded pottery was ornamented by winding cord around the pot when it was still soft. Like the linear ware it was very distinctive and very recognisable. They grew barley in the dryer sub-boreal climate. They continued the work on Stonehenge, and the Bluestone circle is from their period (see The Megalithic Builders above.) It is also likely that with them came the institution of chiefdoms (Stover and Kraig 62ff). At this time the type of cow called the bos longifrons was introduced, and also the horse as an article of food.

            The European Early Bronze Age followed on the Corded Ware and Beaker cultures and the pottery styles from these cultures persisted in their respective areas. Bronze manufacture reached its peak at a site in Czechoslovakia called Unetice. When the site was excavated in the late nineteenth century it was found to contain artefacts which proved to be typical of finds over a wide area. The term Unetice was applied loosely to similar related Early Bronze Age cultures in Central Europe. The mountains of Bohemia contained copper and tin, and were close to the tracks of the merchants carrying on the trade in amber from the Baltic to the Mediterranean. Burials were usually in flat graves but barrows filled with rich grave goods were not unknown. These graves are seen as denoting emerging social stratification. They belong to the later part of the Early Bronze Age, and are not typical of the Early Bronze Age as a whole. Nevertheless, there were no sharp divisions and one period merged into another. The labels are only for our convenience (Coles and Harding 40ff).

            The economy continued to be mixed. Cattle predominated among the domestic animals, and dairy products seem to have been important. The weaving of sheep's wool was also important. There was a major development in the production and trading of salt (Coles and Harding 61). Humans and animals require quite large amounts of salt in their diet. Mining for copper ore was developed, the method used being to heat the ore-bearing rock and then chill it with water

            In the next Middle Bronze, or Tumulus Bronze Period, the dead were typically buried in great mounds or barrows. The distinction was based on the manner of burial not on any distinctive forms of artefacts. In some parts of Central Europe bronze artefacts first appear in this period. About this time, from 1600 BC the domesticated horse makes its appearance in the eastern part of Central Europe, being presumably derived from the steppes  (Coles and Harding 99).  The horse is a grassland animal, at home on the cold dry steppes. It may have been domesticated at first as a source of food.  The practice of riding donkeys would have been transferred to the horse. Unlike the cow, it has a strong back and can carry loads, and even humans. However, the situation of its windpipe at the front of its chest made it unsuitable for draught purposes until a suitable harness was developed. Though wheeled wagons also appeared it would seem they were always drawn by oxen. The ard plough, drawn by oxen, seems to date from this time  (op.cit 182.) The ard plough was made of wood, and may originally consisted of no more than a forked branch, one part used as a handle, another to pull with, and the third to scratch and stir the soil. This simple form could be developed by adding a second handle, and a flint or bronze share or cutting point. The horse was increasingly kept in the wetter West for purposes of war and prestige. It never had the same role as a provider of food and drink that it had on the steppes. Not until the invention of an efficient collar early in the Middle Ages was the horse used for work except as a pack animal. For ploughing and drawing wagons it was second to the ox until the nineteenth century. 

             Towards the end of the Bronze Age, in the third phase, cremation became common, and the ashes were placed in urns that were then buried in cemeteries. This culture became known as the Urnfield culture and the name became virtually synonymous with the Late Bronze period in Central Europe 1300 BC to 700 BC. A relatively dense population was indicated by the facts that sites were occupied which were not to be reoccupied until the Middle Ages (Coles and Harding 335ff) In Poland pasture plants and the weeds that indicate cultivation reached a peak. Pollen from trees declined indicating massive deforestation. Cattle, sheep, goats, horses, pigs, and dogs were kept. Granaries held supplies of wheat, barley, and millet, and supplies of broad beans, peas, flax and poppy seeds, apples, and various berries and nuts were kept. Fishing was carried on.

            The Late Bronze period in Central Europe was marked by the number of weapons found the number of defended hilltop sites, and discontinuity of settlements indicating a period of endemic warfare. There were ring forts (called hillforts in Britain), many of which but not all were on hilltops. Fortifications had already appeared in Europe in the Middle Bronze Period, but they were a major feature of the Late Bronze Period. They were constructed of earth or rubble between wooden faces, or between stone facings. Some of these forts were occupied permanently; others show little traces of occupation. Some may have been built merely for fashion (Coles and Harding 351). Warfare was endemic in the Bronze Age and we may conclude that as a surplus of wealth increased so too did the temptation to seize the wealth of other people by force.

            Climatically the whole period fell into the sub-boreal period, the colder dryer period (2,730 to 940 BC) following the warmer wetter Atlantic Period. Temperatures in Western Europe fell between 1500 BC and 1000 BC to a low point, after which they rose again in the Iron Age. [Top]

The Bronze Age in Britain and Ireland (2,000 BC to 650 BC)

            In the British Isles the Bronze Age is divided into Early Bronze and Late Bronze Periods. The peak of the Bronze Age was in the early period from about 2000 BC to 1400 BC which was followed by a period of relative decline after which there was a revival after 1200 BC which lasted until 700 BC. This short period of decline coincided with the lowest global temperatures in the post-glacial period, and also with a period of disturbance and apparently shifting populations in Eastern Europe, the Aegean, and the Middle East coinciding with the onset of the Iron Age in those parts. The colder dryer Sub-Boreal period (2700 - 940 BC) was coming to an end, and the warmer wetter Sub-Atlantic commencing.

            The first signs of metal discovered by British archaeologists were in the graves of the so-called Bell Beaker folk. As noted above it was at first considered that they were a different invading people who wiped out the earlier long-headed people who buried their dead in long barrows. Hence the adage ‘Long barrows long heads; round barrows round heads’. As more and more graves were excavated it was found that the anatomical measurements were not statistically significant.

Britain There was little immediate change with the introduction of the metals, gold, copper, and bronze. Nor was there much practical everyday use for them. But the metals and objects made from them were always in demand so their use facilitated trade. They also allowed chiefs to reward individual warriors or individual wives. The introduction of the wheel was important. Wheels however require firm surfaces to roll on, so the areas where they could be used even in summer was quite limited. Clearance of the woods continued not only on the chalk and limestone soils but also on various sands and gravels. Regular field systems were marked out, and cultivated with the ard plough probably tipped with a stone share. Barley, wheat, spelt and flax were cultivated. Many upland regions were cleared and used for agriculture and herding before they deteriorated irreversibly into heath and bog.  Wooden roads across bogs date from this time. Remains of settlements are found on such barren areas as Dartmoor, and the North Yorkshire moors. The climate was for the most part warmer and more congenial, so life would still have been comfortable at considerable altitudes. As elsewhere in Europe burials were in single graves.

             Numerous finds were found in graves in South Western England from what the archaeologists call the Wessex Culture or the Wessex farmers.  However, whether such a distinct culture existed or not is unclear. What is certain is that there were numerous rich graves filled with small gold objects. There were also many other graves that lacked grave goods. Whether this reflected a difference between rich and poor or just differing burial practices cannot be ascertained.

            Use of the old ritual sites continued including Stonehenge, though there was no further attempt at building there. The site was abandoned about 1600 BC. On the other hand many stone circles seem to date from the Bronze Age. Besides the graves there are numerous field monuments like cairns and standing stones, but there are few traces of houses.

            The manufacture of stone implements continued and fine-grained stones were sought out for axe-heads. There were a great variety of potteries but the great achievement of the period was the development of metal work, especially in gold. Gold was found in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Gold was used lavishly, and the heavy gold lunulae suggest that gold was used to indicate rank. The only source of tin in the British Isles was Cornwall. Copper ores were abundant. Mycenian ware has been found in both Britain and Ireland showing trade with the Aegean. The working of metal and the associated mining and trading, were carried on extensively. It is still not clear what languages were spoken in the British Isles, this being part of the general question regarding the languages spoken before the spread of the Indo-European languages.

            There was a deterioration in climate after 1400 BC. The Late Bronze period in Britain corresponds roughly with the Urnfield Period in Central Europe. Old settlements were abandoned and ancient ritual sites went out of use. Patterns of settlement similar to those in the Iron Age with round huts appeared. This shows that while the appearance of iron is useful for dating purposes it does not indicate major changes in other respects. Hillforts became common and so too did finds of weapons. Full body armour is now found. The late Bronze culture is called the 'Deverel-Rimbury ranchers' indicating that pastoral trends were developing. The farming was however mixed, the animals being cattle and sheep and the sown crops emmer wheat and barley. Pigs were kept in the woods. Barley was now the chief crop, amounting to 80% of the cereal crop, the remaining 20% being emmer wheat. Most of the barley was sown in the autumn. Barley can be grown in a wider range of climatic conditions than any other cereal. It can be grown on poorer soils and at lower temperatures than wheat. It is also the basis of beer, the favoured alcoholic drink of northern Europe. Their dead were buried in unmarked cremation cemeteries. It was once supposed that this was the result of a direct influence of the Urnfield culture, but this view is now discarded (Laing, L and J). Henges, barrows, and stone circles were no longer being built. Towards the end of the Age the mounted horseman appeared, though the chariots did not immediately disappear.

 As the weather became wetter towards the beginning o f the Sub-Atlantic period flooding and blanket bogs increased. It is likely that there was a considerable fall in population especially in northern Britain. The ubiquitous hut circle settlements in upland areas may have represented seasonal occupation. The settlement pattern that emerged around this time survived until the coming of the Romans. The introduction of iron and of Celtic speech in what is called the Iron Age made comparatively little difference

Copper and bronze are rarely found on the farm sites, and gold almost never. In contrast to the fairly crude pottery, wooden and metal utensils seem to have been of high quality. However this may simply mean that all scraps of metal were re-cycled. 

Ireland: Material Culture  As noted in an earlier chapter, the post-glacial climatic optimum occurred around 5000 BC, fell off until 4000 BC, and recovered again by 3000 BC. From that point temperatures declined until about 1000 BC and then rose until Roman times. The Romans were able to grow vines widely in Britain. The actual annual differences in temperature were not very great, amounting to no more than one or two degrees Celsius. But this was sufficient to make changes in what could be grown and where it could be grown. To this day it is not possible to grow wheat commercially in Northern Ireland, the cereals sown being barley and oats. Similarly, a fall in temperature reduces the height at which many crops can be grown. (The potato, a native of cold wet parts of the Andes in South America, was of course unknown.) During the periods of climatic optimum average annual temperatures were about two degrees higher than at present. Temperatures in central Ireland would correspond to those in northern France at present. Change in the direction of the prevailing winds, those from the north and east (boreal) being dryer from those from the west (Atlantic). There is no obvious connection between fluctuations in temperature and changes in the pattern of winds. The lowest post-glacial temperature occurred at the end of the Bronze Age, about 1000 BC when temperatures were about one degree below those at present. The weather as a whole at the beginning of the Bronze Age was declining both in temperature and moisture from the second peak around 3000 BC in the Atlantic period, and was somewhat cooler and dryer. From the point of view of farming these were probably the best conditions ever in Ireland. The end of the Bronze Age and beginning of the Iron Age provided probably the worst conditions for farming in Ireland ever. As noted above, the whole Age lay in the sub-boreal period. (If global warming continues, the halcyon conditions of the Early Bronze Age may return.)

 The beginning of the Irish Bronze Age around 2000 BC was marked by the appearance of bronze objects, and also by pottery of the Beaker type. What really distinguishes the Bronze Age from the Neolithic in Ireland is the abundance of small metal objects, pieces of pottery and jewellery. It was in this period that most of the gold ornaments in the National Museum in Dublin were made. The metal work became highly decorative, and so too did the pottery.

There can be little doubt that the use of metal was brought to Ireland by travelling smiths. These families would have kept the secrets of their craft a closely guarded secret. There was no other invasion at this time that can be determined. Following trends in the previous period the influence of Central Europe persists. The techniques of mining copper observed in Central Europe were also used in Ireland, notably at Mount Gabriel in Co. Cork. Bellamy notes that copper is toxic to most plant life, and therefore the miners had only to search for bare patches of earth. Ireland was comparatively rich is workable seams of copper ore. It was mined at Mount Gabriel in Cork from 1500 BC onwards. Ireland was then probably the greatest source of gold in Western Europe. The gold would have been found in streams as placer gold. It is unlikely that a lode was found, or that the miners had the techniques to exploit it if it were. There are to this day gold-bearing rocks in Ireland but none are worth exploiting commercially. When all the deposits in the rivers were found and recovered there was no more. (It is interesting to speculate how the gold-seekers operated. Presumably they put a barrier of skins around where they were working. The men would herd animals round about and ward off inquisitive locals, while the women did the panning. There would be no point in telling everyone how to get gold.)

            The Bronze Age in Ireland is distinguished into only two phases, Early Bronze and Late Bronze, the boundary between them being place conventionally at 1400 BC and coinciding with a deterioration of the climate as the Sub-Boreal phase gave way to the Sub-Atlantic phase. (Alternatively the boundary is placed about 1200 BC coinciding with the Bishopsland finds. But the metal objects found would only been of concern to the rich chiefs.) As the changes in the weather pattern took place over centuries, so too did the pattern of human life. This was not a sudden abandonment of more exposed sites, but archaeologists note that they cease to be occupied as the centuries pass. The pattern of human settlement became more like it was in the Iron Age. At the beginning the Neolithic pattern of life became marked by the use of bronze, and at the end the Iron Age is marked by the use of iron. Though there is a wealth of metal objects and some pottery from the period there are few identified settlements, and our ideas on society in the period are largely conjectural and derived from sources abroad. The Bronze Age especially the later phases is associated with the development of weapons, and what may be defended sites. Spears, rapiers, and later a slashing sword made from bronze were made

Very few Bronze Age settlements have been found in Ireland, but the articles found indicate that Ireland was in wide contact with Western Europe. Apparently the population lived in small dispersed settlements with insubstantial huts. Again, we can assume that a local chief of small tuatha or chiefdoms about several miles square were already present. It is impossible to say if the weapons were used in warfare was between tuatha, or to ward off bandits and rustlers, to use the later terms.

Much of what we know of the period comes from graves. The dead were buried in individual graves or were cremated, as was the custom elsewhere on the Continent. Stone circles of smaller extent than at Newgrange were set up, and these were probably for recording some cycles of the heavenly bodies. There was some ornamentation on stone as at Newgrange but the patterns were different. Houses were little different from in the previous age. The construction of henges and stone circles continued, and these are associated with Beaker pottery. There was a change over from communal burial in the Neolithic Period to single graves in the Bronze Age. At first there was simple burial in a crouched position, but later cremation was resumed. The graves were flat burials, not under long or round barrows. There was a vibrant Bronze Age culture at Newgrange and a large wooden henge was built there. A partial circle of stones may also have been erected there at this period. There was also an Early Bronze Age burial site, and perhaps religious site at Tara also continuing from the Neolithic Period.

            The middle of the Bronze Age was probably Ireland's Golden Age. The climate was still warm, agricultural techniques ensured food for all, and the curse of Ireland, incessant warfare, had not yet appeared. The ard plough brought up nutrients from a greater depth than could be obtained by the hoe. Cultivation in ridges would have the same effect. In addition, cultivation was possible at higher levels that later were covered with heather and bog. An analysis of the remains of animals show that 57% of them were from cattle, 31% from pigs, 5% from sheep and goats, 4% from dogs, and 2% from horses. Also introduced at an early stage was the horse for a skeleton of one was found at Newgrange. It is difficult to say what the horses were used for, though they were a source of food on the steppes. They could have been pack ponies. The horse collar, which enabled horses to draw heavy carts, had not been invented. Oxen, whose windpipe is not affected by a yoke, could be used for ploughing and drawing carts. The heavy rough carts would only have been used to carry stuff short distances, probably within the bounds of a farm. The farm, or piece of land occupied by a family, could have been much more extended than the cultivated fields. It would have included a piece of woodland for fuel, and rough land for the grazing of cattle and feeding of pigs. As in Britain the cereals were barley and emmer wheat. But the richness of the Wessex farmers was not reflected in Ireland. It is generally believed that the simple ard plough without a mouldboard was introduced at this period. It stirred up the soil and released nutrients from a greater depth than a hoe.

Pottery was now common but still not made on a wheel. Beaker-style pottery persisted alongside the local 'food vessel' pottery thick-walled with elaborate impressed decoration. Techniques in metal-working improved. Casting became common. Decoration throughout the period was geometrical and abstract. An inability to make large cauldrons either of pottery or bronze seems indicated by the persistence of the practice of using hot stones to boil water.

 By 1440 BC the continuously worsening Sub-Boreal climate may have been producing ever-extending bogs, with the result that causeways had to be built over bogs and marshy areas. After 1250 BC the copper mines at Mount Gabriel seem to have been abandoned, and were then covered over by peat. With the extensive clearing of the forests grass covered much of Ireland. Bogs were not nearly as extensive as they were later to become. 

The beginning of the Late Bronze Age c. 1200 was marked by the Bishopsland find with influences from northern Europe. The find was probably the tools and materials of trade of an itinerant smith. Craftsman’s tools like the anvil, saw, hammer, and such are found for the first time. The socketed axehead was introduced. An eastern Mediterranean influence is also detectable in the style of the gold ornaments. The patterns were still geometric. Some of the bronze objects are superb. The gold objects were still heavy indicating that gold supplies were still plentiful (de Breffney).

 The climate deteriorated and briefly reached a low point about 1000 BC which was not reached again until the 17th century AD (King 183ff). Apart from metal objects we know little of the period between 1400 and 800 BC. There is an absence of graves and houses; a fact that also shows how dependent archaeology is on chance. This period was also a dark one in the eastern Mediterranean following the collapse of the Mycenean and Hittite kingdoms and the movement of the Indo-Europeans into western and southern Europe. It is very difficult to get exact information about the Late Bronze and Iron Ages in Ireland. However, as Bronze Age cultures differed little from each other we can supplement information from Irish sources with information from abroad.

There were different styles of pottery and metalwork at various times reflecting different influences from the Continent. These stylistic differences enable archaeologists to date sites relative to one another. But there were no major differences or developments such as were to be found in Central Europe. This phase was noted for the sheer volume of gold used in ornaments. The pottery in this period was much worse than that in the Early Bronze Period.

            Metalwork reached its peak in the Dowris phase beginning in the 8th cent BC. The volume of metal work increased considerably, and also the quality and range. As metal objects would have been expensive it is reasonable to conclude that the period was one of prosperity. Moses, at this period (1200 to 600 BC), in the Bible commanded the Israelites to use large quantities of gold in the making the sacred vessels. It seems rather strange that gold was not used for this purpose in Ireland. But we really have no idea what some of the gold objects like torcs and lunulae were used for.

There was certainly considerable tillage. However, the quality of the pottery deteriorated. Metal tools allowed the making of fine wooden vessels and it would seem these were preferred at this date as at later dates to crude pottery ones.

            The only real evidence regarding housing in the Bronze Age in Ireland comes from this period. At Rathgall, in Co. Wicklow traces of a large post built house was found 15 metres (48 feet in diameter. It stood inside an enclosing ditch 35 metres (115 feet) in diameter. A similar hut and enclosure was discovered at Eamhain Macha (Navan Fort) near Armagh, dating possibly from the Iron Age, though Raftery prefers the Late Bronze Age as the principal period of occupation. In parts of Ireland crannogs or dwellings on island sites in lakes became popular. The islands could be artificial. They were not necessarily connected with the need for defence, for settlements in low-lying watery places were common. The abundance of natural wildlife could have been the attraction. All buildings were constructed of wood, and unless there were associated earthworks or stoneworks no traces of them were likely to survive. We can only speculate if the wood in the houses was elaborately carved or left rough. If war was not common the chances are that they were carved in patterns resembling those in the metal and pottery works. Temples too if they existed, and they probably did, would have been made of wood, and likewise any images or idols in them.

             In a survey of Irish hill forts and promontory forts, Raftery concludes that they were mostly built during the Late Bronze Age. There is virtually nothing to connect them with the Iron Age, except perhaps for some re-occupation. They are also in parts of Ireland where La Tene influence is absent. The most famous of these are on the Aran Islands and Grianan Aileach in Co. Donegal. The supposition is that they antedated the arrival of the Celtic warriors (Raftery 58ff). But like everything else in this period, there is nothing but speculation regarding who might have built them, and for what purposes. Were they military sites or religious sites?

            As the climate continued to deteriorate, it is likely that the population fell sharply. Warfare to control the better lands would have become endemic. With the “Dark Age’ in the Aegean the stimulus to trade would gradually have died out. Metal work remained at a high standard at least until the Dowris Period (8th century BC). [Top] 

Irish Society in the Bronze Age            There was no break in continuity or radical development in the structure of western societies between the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. Over the thousands of years that followed the farming revolution society changed and became more complex and more stratified. By the Bronze Age Irish society may have arrived at the form in which we find it when the use of writing following the introduction of Christianity. The small numbers of Celtic warriors, like the small numbers of Viking warriors and the small numbers of Norman warriors did not fundamentally change the structure of society. In each case a small ruling warrior elite replaced the existing one, and introduced their own language and some variations of customs.

            The economy was subsistence one, which meant that by and large it produced enough food and other necessities of life to maintain the population. The term subsistence is a broad one. On the one hand we can have substantial farming families producing abundant food for their own needs, and abundant clothing and footwear, and with the necessary skill to preserve food for considerable periods, and to make warm and dry clothing. At the other extreme we can have the miserably poor, like the poorest ten per cent of the Irish population before the Famine, having little or no land, and being almost totally devoid of practical skills to help themselves. The indications are that in the Late Bronze Age, the population of the British Isles reached a peak that was not reached again until modern times, and that useful skills to provide a comfortable living were widely found.

            We can envisage life in rural Ireland in the Bronze Age as much like life in rural Ireland in the Middle Ages. There would have been a local chief who controlled a piece of territory about the size of a barony. There were later several baronies in a county, but it is doubtful if there was a hierarchy of chiefs as there was later. The chief would have corresponded to the lowest grade of chief in the Celtic period, the ri (rix, rex) chief of the tuath. (The term king is traditional, and was later replaced by words like chief, captain, or headman. The Book of Joshua gives a list of thirty one kings, melek, malkim of the Canaanites conquered by Joshua in Palestine west of the Jordan. Certainly in Celtic society the king was a sacred person. His duties would have included deciding disputes, and conducting sacred rites. There may have been; indeed there probably were, other hereditary sacred persons, the keepers of the sacred sites, later usually called generically priests. There would have been a gradation of society based on wealth and influence, and the chief would have been selected from among the members of the richer families. These families, in later times called 'county families’, would have formed a ruling elite. In Palestine at the same period, several tribes were organised around a common shrine. This was the case in Greece also. In times of crisis a temporary chief was appointed to unify their efforts. It would not have been, as it was in Celtic and later times, an alien ruling elite. The Celts, like other Indo-Europeans, chose their chiefs principally as leaders of war-bands, but as warfare was not endemic in the Bronze Age we do not know what qualities were deemed suitable in a chief. The chiefs undoubtedly were drawn from the family of the last chief.

 What is not clear is whether there was a hierarchy of chiefs such as became universal afterwards among the pastoral nomads, whether they remained on the steppes, or settled in the cultivated land. Under the Mongols for example a vast portion of Eurasia was controlled by the Great Khan, by simply controlling the subordinate khans, who controlled their subordinates, and so on. The subordinates pledged fealty to their immediate superior, who pledged his loyalty to his superior and so on. This system was re-introduced into Europe as the ‘feudal system’. Where warfare was not endemic we can assume that all the chiefs were equal, each being supreme in a small territory about equal to a later barony, or division of a county.

It is reasonable also to assume that each individual farm was roughly equal in area to a town land. The townland remained the basic unit of local taxation until the nineteenth century AD. In Celtic times the head of the household was called a bo-aire. It is not being excessively cynical to suppose that all bo-aires were not equal, or to suppose that a bo-aire who was a relative of ri had a larger farm and was a more important person than one who was not so related. We can also assume that no one ever won a judgement in court against a relative of the ri. We can also assume that there was from time to time meetings of all the freemen, i.e. bo-aires of the tuath where everyone could be asked to speak his mind. This of course would not mean that any bo-aire could speak, and speak his mind boldly. He would have to wait to be asked, and then would have to be very respectful of the ri. The outspoken biblical prophets would certainly not be typical of such men. What we are trying to do is to envisage a society half way between Neolithic simplicity and the Byzantine complexity of gradations of Irish society in the period when they were first put down in writing.

            There would almost certainly have been an important local shrine, within a tuath or group of tuatha, almost certainly in connection with the burial mounds and megalithic tombs. Most of the constructions at these sites would have been of wood. The original great religious festivals were probably held in connection with funerals, but by the Bronze Age we can assume regular religious rites based on a solar calendar. Indeed, it is reasonable to assume that these occurred at the same time as the four great religious festivals of Celtic times, at the beginning of spring, of summer, of autumn, and of winter. The greatest, which marked the end of the solar year, would have been held in November, and it would also have been the great feast of the dead, as it remains in the Christian calendar to this day. It would also have marked the end of the harvest, and the re-commencement of brewing, and the culling of cattle would have meant a plentiful supply of meat. (The three great Hebrew festivals that date from this period mark the first fruit or beginning of the harvest, the completion of the harvest, and the vintage).  The related mythology would have been more or less as we described for the Neolithic Period. Use of the earlier shrines continued well into the Bronze Age. The tendency at this period was to construct wooden henges or circles. If Eamhain Macha was a cult site we would expect that the myth of the dying and rising god was still connected with it. The legend of the Red Branch knights would have been attached to it long after, probably several hundred years after, it had ceased to be used.

            The Hebrews too made a pilgrimage, or festival procession, to the local shrine on these occasions. In Ireland, as in Greece, and Palestine, there were probably sacred or amphictyonic leagues gathered about a particular important shrine. The ‘pattern’ or local pilgrimage to a local spring, cemetery, or shrine on the feast of the patron saint of the parish persisted until the twentieth century. The parish often corresponded with the tuath. In Palestine and in Greece the usual number of petty states gathered about the shrine was twelve, and this could also have been the case in Ireland. There is much in favour of the assumption that there was a common local shrine to which members of several tuatha repaired. Such an arrangement would facilitate the assembly of the numbers required to construct the great earthworks. The festal procession would have involved more than walking and singing hymns. It would have been a general day of celebration, and if there were unfree persons they would do no work on that day. Such a grouping would also facilitate the emergence of the mesne chief, or chief over several tuatha. Such shrines would not necessarily be found everywhere. There would of course have been lesser shrines within each tuath, and lesser feast days where only members of the tuath would foregather.

            Also certainly too we would find one group of related families who had the right to minister at this shrine. These families would have a right to pieces of meat, or meal, or any other offering. These priestly families would have been the custodians of all speculative knowledge, whether religious, astronomical, botanical, medical, or legal. As the king would have been a sacred figure, law would have had a sacred character. Even to this day, some laws, like those against blasphemy, have their aim at preventing an individual drawing down divine wrath on the whole community. It would seem too that the knowledge of the extraordinary skills and techniques used in the construction of the megalithic tombs belonged to these priestly families. This knowledge is now completely lost, and we do not know how cromlechs, or stone henges, or pyramids were constructed. The shrine would have been endowed with lands for its support as well, and would have played a role in the community similar to that of medieval monasteries in Ireland. Indeed it is interesting to speculate if the identical lands passed from the custodians of the priestly shrines to the monasteries. There would have been a tendency to specialise in knowledge, first between those who interests were primarily religious and those whose needs were concerned with secular administration and who needed to know the laws and the genealogies. Medicine would have been originally religious knowledge, but bone-setting and the healing of battle-wounds could easily have become a secular branch of knowledge.

            All the learning was committed to memory. Whether any form of writing was used we do not know because no relics survive. The are no inscription on stone or metal, and vellum or papyrus would not survive in the damp climate.

            Metal workers had a body of knowledge connected with their own 'mystery' and the metal workers formed an esteemed caste. Though the number of trades with valued skills was doubtless not as numerous as it had become when the trades were named in writing. Their position in society was a high one, far removed from that of the metal-working tinkers of later times. Metal objects were of great value. The chief metal worker and his family would have been retained by a chief who would have provided them with adequate lands for their support, and made sure they got their share of luxuries like wine, or purple dye. The remuneration of those with lesser skills like making wooden bowls is not obvious; perhaps it was in measures of grain.

            The bulk of the population would have consisted of the ordinary farmers and herders, and probably composed of 95% of the population. The situation which arose when an Celtic-speaking overlordship ruled the country and every relative of the chief demanded the right to be fed by the workers, and when no man with any pretensions to be ‘of gentle blood' or in any way related to any chief, would ever dirty his hands, was far in the distant future. By the end of the Middle Ages, those claiming relationship with the chief, and whose principal occupation was war, together with the other members of the ruling families occupying all the places in the Church and the professions, may have amounted to 50% of the population.

             The chief himself would have been provided with sufficient lands to maintain himself and a small household in comfort. . He would not have needed several manors to support his retainers. His sons would have joined the hired servants or other family retainers in handling the herds, as Saul and David did. There would have been none whose sole occupation was warfare. As the society was cashless, the position of a chief in a tuath or the head of a farming family would have been the same as that of an abbot in a medieval monastery. All the material resources would have had to pass through the hands of the head of the family, and he would allocate to each according to his need, or his rank within his own household. In the wider sphere of the tuath the chief would receive a gift from every suppliant, merchant, or traveller, and would distribute these gifts among the members of his own family or among the greater farmers whose support he needed. No gift, no judgement. St Patrick was to note later the endless sums he laid out on such gifts to chiefs, and there is no reason to believe the Celts invented the practice. The parable of the Unjust Judge shows that the widow could not get a judgement because she could not afford the gift. The distinction between a gift and a bribe is a fine one. (The practice survives in the Catholic Church where anyone wishing a priest to say mass for a particular intention must offer a specified minimum gift.)

            However, it should be noted that there is little archaeological confirmation for these conjectures. There are no rich graves, or remnants of palaces. The large houses uncovered could have been cult centres. An ordinary farmer would not have been able to pay for rich gold ornaments and the only likely patrons would have been chiefs who controlled production and trade in a given area. We just assume that society was organised in some way, before that organisation was committed to writing.



Copyright Desmond J. Keenan, B.S.Sc.; Ph.D. ;.London, U.K.