The Bronze Age in Ireland is normally considered to start in 2500 BC or 2000 BC, and to end in 600 BC or 300 BC. In the late Neolithic or early Bronze Age, a distinctive type of pot without handles, called a beaker, starts to appear in many parts of Europe. The spread of "Beaker culture" in Europe seems to have been a cultural change, rather than the result of large scale migrations. Some late Neolithic wedge tombs contain beakers, but it seems likely that these were Bronze Age burials in older Neolithic tombs. A more typical early Bronze Age burial would consist of a pit or stone cist, containing the cremated remains of a single individual, together with a large pottery vessel and perhaps a few bronze objects.
The earliest metal tools in Ireland were copper and were concentrated in Munster. They were cast using open stone moulds, such as the sandstone mould found near Ballynahinch, Co. Down. The addition of small quantity of tin to the copper made the much harder bronze alloy. This enabled more complicated objects such as spearheads, woodworking tools, razors, swords and fasteners for clothes to be made during the later Bronze Age. Gold ornaments such as bracelets and lunula have also been found, suggesting a more stratified social structure, and the beginnings of an aristocracy. Metal objects like this would have been rare and precious, and were traded over considerable distances.
A Bronze Age site on the shore of Cullyhanna Lough in Co. Armagh has been interpreted as a temporary hunting camp. When excavated, it was found to consist of an outer wooden enclosure and a timber hut. The oak at the site has been dated using tree-ring dating to 1526 BC, just at the end of the Early Bonze Age. Another interesting site was found at Lough Eskragh in Co. Tyrone. This appears to have been a crannog or artificial island. Crannogs were also constructed in Neolithic and even in medieval times, but this one was dated to about the 10th century BC, in the Late Bronze Age. Nearby were the remains of two dugout canoes, made of oak, which had been preserved in the mud.
Several Bronze Age structures have been found in the area around Navan Fort in Co. Armagh. About half a mile from Navan Fort is an artificial pool called the King's Stables. This is a pool about 25 metres across and about 4 metres deep. A small test excavation in the pool found animal bones, moulds for swords and part of the skull of a young man. The findings suggest that this was a ritual pool used to deposit offerings to gods. The most exotic find at the Navan Fort itself was the skull of a Barbary Ape, which may well have been an extremely costly present transported from North Africa to Ulster. Navan Fort was obviously a place of considerable importance in the Late Bronze Age, and emerges as the Royal centre of Emain Macha during the Iron Age.
Did the Bronze Age inhabitants of Ulster speak a Celtic language? The traditional view was that Celtic languages originated in the Hallstatt region of Europe during the Iron Age, radiated out to other regions. By about 700 BC, swords of the Hallstatt type start to appear in Ireland, but these were made of bronze, not of iron, so it seems likely that these were bronze copies made by local smiths. There is little archaeological evidence to support the idea of an influx of a significant number of people speaking a Celtic language, so the origins of the language remain something of an unsolved mystery for archaeologists and linguists.
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