Thursday, January 10, 2013

Rethinking the Irish Iron Age. Chronology, hillforts, aborigines and intruders by Richard Warner: Review

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Preface:
I am delighted to again welcome Rena Maguire to the blog. Rena is an undergraduate student at QUB, in her final year. She is currently working on her undergraduate thesis: Iron Age horse harness Y pieces: function, manufacture and typologies.

Robert M Chapple

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School of Geography, Archaeology and Palaeoecology: Past Cultural Change lunchtime seminar, 4th December 2012

There were no spare seats left in G43 seminar room. Instead, stellar IQs perched on the edges of benches beside microscopes, on tables - anywhere they could get a place to sit. If there’s such a thing as a rock star in Northern Irish archaeology, Richard Warner probably is it. And on December 4th 2012, he arrived in QUB Belfast School of Geography, Archaeology and Paleoecology to challenge us all to rethink the chronology of the Irish Iron Age.

There’s a fair few people who know this topic is very close to my heart (so close I’m writing my dissertation on a little aspect of it!) so I admit, I made sure I had one of the best seats in the room. The atmosphere buzzed, the banter between Warner and the elder statesmen of archaeology such as Prof. Mallory and Dr McCormick got the afternoon off to a merry start, belying the subversive nature of the topic.

Warner started with what I’ve known all along - the Irish Iron Age hasn’t attracted a lot of people to it - something of a niche market for the discerning archaeologist, but it’s just about to become very sexy, with the encouragement of the Discovery Programme and LIARI initiatives in the Republic of Ireland. This hopefully will infuse this area of research with new ideas and energy. He then called for a revolutionary rethink of the Iron Age in Ireland, not just from the contentious old chestnut of ‘Roman Ireland’ but also how we chose to create a chronology of the period.

Conventional archaeological thinking has placed the start of the Irish Iron Age around 300 BC, and ending around 400AD, with the arrival of Christianity. We know that Bronze Age objects were being mended and modified during the Iron Age, as demonstrated by the iron rivets on the bronze cauldron found at Lisdronturk. There is no defined set of dates which moves Irish archaeology from the Bronze to Iron Ages, and what chronology there is can be considered questionable.

Stuart Needham’s work with the British Museum on the British Bronze Age has started to suggest more accurate chronologies of artefacts such as pegged spearheads as discussed in Davis (2006), which have been found mostly in bogs and rivers. It would appear that if we define the Irish Iron Age by the first use of iron, the date indicated would be during the 8th century BC - earlier than conventional dating. We just don’t have a great deal of specimens from this time, as bog ore corrodes easily.

Hillforts are a feature very much associated with the Irish Iron Age with Northern Ireland sites such as Clogher [and here] and Navan, and the often overlooked Carncoagh Hill which is associated with the Lisnacrogher Hoard (Fredengren, 2007). There is no sign of the high status burials like those of the British or European Iron Ages; Irish burial practice consisted of unassuming cremations and ring-barrows with a paucity of grave goods.

So, if the Iron Age had started during our definition of the Bronze Age, how do we categorise Irish La Tène derivative metalwork, so typical of the era? Warner enigmatically suggests from 300 BC to 100AD the Irish Iron Age is strongly influenced by La Tène culture, and that there is no evidence for continuation of La Tène derivative metalwork after 150AD. I suspect this was a ‘teaser’ for future publications or journal articles to come, as when I questioned this (I was particularly interested for my own research work) he kindly said that I could use this information referenced as a personal communication as it was ‘not yet in print’. Watch this space!

Burials during this 1st century AD phase 2 of the Iron Age start to show other influences, similar to Romano-Britain. Funeral ritual indicates flexed, or crouched, inhumations. Sites such as Clogher, with its ‘Roman’ brooch would indicate some sort of trade or contact with Britain and/or Europe. This is further compounded by the glass funerary urn found at Stoneyford, Kilkenny (Bourke 1989; Waddell, 2010), which is identical to finds from London of the same period. It’s been suggested this belonged to a ‘travelling salesman’ from Roman Britain - but as Warner said with the best sang froid, how many salesmen do you know who keep a coffin in the boot of their Mondeo, just in case they shuffle off mid-sales?

The issue of ‘Roman Ireland’ is thorny and hazardous (and one I’m having to negotiate as I write, with regard to my own research) but it can’t be denied there has been contact - Tara, Clogher, Newgrange and Cashel all have provided artefacts with Roman or Romano-British origins. There is controversial and powerful evidence of regular Romano-Hibernian interactions at Drumanagh, Dublin, as well as nearby Lambay Island and Bray (Corlett and Potterton, 2012). The proximity of the County Dublin coastline to Wales must be noted - even today ferries commute each day between Dun Laoighaire and Anglesey. Warner suggested that the archtypically Irish ‘Tara Brooch’ is in fact a highly decorated, customised version of the Romano-British penanular brooch. It’s the nature of the interaction that needs questioned - and researched.

I’ve a gut feeling - not least because this is my pet area of research – that the answers will change so much of how we view an era that has been overlooked or under-rated by archaeology for too long. This review is, of course, abridged compared to the actual event, picking out the main points of chronology and interactions. Richard Warner’s seminar was good natured, entertaining, provocative and challenging to any past paradigm of a stagnant Iron Age. I, for one, am looking forward to reading Warner’s new hypothesis, as much as I look forward to my own future research in this field.

References
Bourke, E.  1989. ‘Stoneyford: A First-Century Roman Burial from IrelandArchaeology Ireland 3.2, 56-7.


Davis, R. 2006. Basal Looped Spearheads: typology, chronology, context and use. BAR International Series 1497. Oxford. Archaeopress.

Fredengren, C. 2007. ‘Lisnacrogher in a landscape perspectiveJRSAI 137. 29-41

Waddell, J. 2010. The Prehistoric Archaeology of Ireland. Bray. Wordwell.


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