November 28, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Sam Harris-Weatherbee finds out how science is uncovering ancient trading routes between Britain and Ireland

Metallurgical_diffusionRecords from as early as the 1700s describe Irish farmers plucking gold discs, gold crescent necklaces and tiny gold basket-shaped ornaments from the earth as they ploughed their fields. The gold artefacts were made some time in the early Bronze Age, around 2500 BC, although their cultural significance has been something of a mystery for archaeologists.

However, recently archaeologists at the University of Southampton discovered that the gold used to make the artefacts is not Irish, but British, suggesting that there was an ancient gold trade route between the two countries.

Dr Chris Standish, the lead researcher from the University of Southampton, says that their discovery is “unusual in that the general perceived opinion was that the gold came from Ireland… and that’s because such a large concentration of these artefacts have been discovered in Ireland, particularly compared to Britain and other neighbouring regions of north-western Europe.”

Laser ablation electrospray ionization overview: Open image to see animation

The research, in collaboration with the University of Bristol, used a new technique called laser ablation mass spectrometry to measure the composition of lead, silver, copper and tin in the gold of the artefacts. The scientists then compared these results to the composition of gold deposits from a variety of locations in Ireland and the UK, finding that they were most likely from Cornwall in south-west Britain, rather than Ireland.

Chris Standish and his team suggest that evidence of a gold trade route in the early Bronze Age sheds new light on the civilisation’s belief systems. This arises from the paradox that very little finished gold was circulating in Britain at the time, yet Ireland was importing it from there, despite having rich and easily accessible sources locally. Why go to all that trouble?

“We’ve suggested that perhaps [the Irish and British] are seeing [gold] in different ways,” says Chris Standish. Just as gold is intrinsically tied into economic wealth today, Chris Standish says that “people in southern Britain [in the early Bronze Age were] already seeing [gold] as a kind of commodity in the modern sense… [which] they prefer[red] to trade for other goods… Whereas… gold is often seen to have supernatural or magical properties… [in, for example] southern and central American cultures like Aztecs and Incas.” The researchers suggest that the Irish may have had similar beliefs and that the gold’s distant British origin fed into its auspicious value.

Blessington_lunula.BM.WG.31 1024w cropped
A gold lunula found in Blessington, Co. Wicklow, Ireland, estimated to date from 2400 BCE to 2000 BCE

Recently the two main types of gold artefacts, discs and crescent necklaces (‘lunula’), have been linked to a sun-based belief system that was common across regions of Europe during the Bronze Age. The gold discs themselves are believed to be representations of the sun, and Chris Standish says that “if this is the case and the artefacts were religious items… used by religious specialists… then that would explain why they were looking for this slightly mystical or esoteric material to make the artefacts out of.”

More broadly this research helps archaeologists understand the ties between the two regions. Chris Standish says “It’s important to remember that modern day countries and political boundaries… didn’t actually exist back then and it’s quite probable that south-western Britain had closer ties with Ireland than they did with eastern Britain.”

This discovery is helping archaeologists expose the meaning of these enigmatic gold artefacts of Ireland. The researchers hope to analyse British gold artefacts to look for larger scale patterns. In particular, Chris Standish says they could “use what [we] learn about the gold trade and link it in with other things we know were happening at the time… [such as] human migration. Hopefully this adds and builds on to our overall view of [the early Bronze Age].”

Samantha Harris-Wetherbee is studying for an MSc in Science Communication

Images: Diffusion of metallurgy in EuropeLaser Ablation Electrospray Ionization overview animated GIF; Blessington lunula (Wikimedia Commons)

Citation: Standish, C.D. et al. (2015) A non-local source of Irish Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age gold.  Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 81, 1-29. (doi:10.1017/ppr.2015.4).