The Archaeology of Metalworking

Galway Forged Gates Project

B. Doherty

Hoard Of Axes, Dagger And Awls
@National Museum of Ireland
Gold lunula
´@National Museum of Ireland
Attymon horse bits
@National Museum of Ireland
Furnace Reconstruction
@School of Archaeology, University College Dublin
Bronze pin or buckle
@Eachtra for TII
Shrine Of St Brigid's Shoe
@National Museum of Ireland

Bronze Age Ireland   c. 2500BC – 500BC

Metalworking is one of the oldest crafts practiced in Ireland. Functional metal items and tools were developed to assist with daily activities including hunting, farming, cooking and self-defence. The earliest metal objects and artefacts discovered were made from copper.

Tin added to soft copper resulted in the production of an alloy strong enough to make hard wearing tools such as axes, spearheads and cutting tools.  The Moyarwood Spearhead is a fine example of an early bronze age socketed spear-head.

Precious Metals

Very fine ornamental gold pieces indicate producers were not simply farming people, but also sophisticated artisans, creating objects of great beauty and complexity.  Gold and silver was mined and worked in Ireland throughout the bronze-age and would continue into medieval times. They  were mainly used to produce ornamental objects.  The lunula, pictured here was found on an un-named beach in County Galway.


Iron Age in Ireland   500BC – AD 400

Many objects of the Irish La Tène display great stylistic similarities, using zoomorphic and vegetal figures in the earlier Iron Age. A distinctive use in compass styling and trumpet curves is developed into the later Iron Age. La Tène Artwork may be found on many artefacts, from horse trappings and bits to knives, cup handles and scabbards displaying power and prestige of the owners. Metalworkers were artisans as well as makers of much needed functional everyday items.

Iron was produced from Iron Ore, which had to be gathered from bog or rock. High intensity heat was required for smelting – a furnace would have been used. The left over from smelting is known as slag, which has been found at many iron-working sites by archaeologists during excavations.

Over 130 bronze horse-bits dating from the Iron Age have been found throughout Ireland telling us travel on horseback was widespread at this time.

Medieval Ireland c. 500AD – C1200 AD

Excavations reveal that metalworking was evident at secular sites. Workshops are also associated at Early Christian monastery locations. Fine ecclesiastical vessels, shrines and reliquaries associated with early Irish Saints have been discovered. Masons and artisans also required tools to carry out their skilled labour. Bronze and gold continued to be used for jewellery and dress pieces.

Small brooches and ring pins made from bronze, silver and gold were sometimes decorated with coloured glass. These were often given to a man or woman as a gift and a sign of love and affection. A number of excavations carried out in advance of the M6 Motorway revealed an array of artefacts, such as Derrydonnellmore Early Medieval Bronze Ring Pin (Eachtra, for TII) and at Owenbristy a bronze ring pin or buckle which is shown here ( Photograph by John Sunderland, Eachtra for TII).

Renaissance in Metalworking

A renaissance in metalworking in 11th and 12th century came with the patronage of many churches and abbeys. This resurgence gave us many fine examples of relics and shrines adorned with jewels. Fine examples are the Cross of Cong, and more locally St. Brigid’s Shoe Shrine which is associated with Loughrea.

Galway Forged Gates Project was launched at 11am Friday 5th May 2023 at ATU Mountbellew (Agricultural College).

Pull -up banner presentations on display can be sourced HERE

Stray Finds

Please Note: All stray finds are the property of the state and should be notified to The National Museum of Ireland within 48 hours of discovery. It is important to record the location of the find if at all possible and not to ‘investigate’ further. The Galway Community Archaeologist can assist with any discovery of stray finds.

Galway Community Archaeology Project is funded by Galway County Council and The Heritage Council.


This page was added on 03/05/2023.

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