The Golden Age of Gold

Entrance stone with megalithic art.

At the National Museum today, where I haven’t been since I was twelve. But then, I was pretty much twelve again when I walked through the door. Caveman stuff!

Our whole visit went on simply taking in the main hall on the ground floor, which brings you from the Palaeolithic (beginning 3-400,000 years ago), to the end of the bronze age (about 500 BC). Quite a span – but actually the palaeolithic is a bit of a cheat. It’s not thought that people actually lived in Ireland then. This is the era when tools were no more than rocks broken to have sharp edges. At that level of technology people probably didn’t have clothes, so it seems highly unlikely that they could have survived here during an ice age… Nevertheless we have a couple of what appear to be palaeolithic stone tools. It’s just that we’re not sure how they got there. Theories range from them being carried here by receding glaciers, to being carried here by mischievous archaeologists. Well the display card didn’t actually say that, but I couldn’t help feeling it was the subtext.

From this perhaps weak beginning we skip straight to the action – nearly half a million years later. Things begin to get going around 7,000 years ago with the Mesolithic, when they finally had the idea of tying rocks to sticks. If you don’t think that’s a big difference, compare the idea of trying to chop down a tree with an axe to the idea of trying to chop down a tree with an axehead. I shouldn’t talk as if they just suddenly thought of it though. It takes tools to make tools; the technology evolved in tiny gradations until a breakthrough was possible.

But these people were still nomads. It was the Neolithic that brought farming to Ireland, five or six thousand years ago, and with that the first lasting buildings, the great megalithic monuments like Newgrange, apparently part of an extraordinary culture that seems to have blossomed throughout north-western Europe for, well, for a few thousand years, and about which we now know almost nothing.

Now the stone tools were different. They were… beautiful. Some smooth, some ornately carved. These people had brought the art of banging rocks together to its apotheosis. One shocking example of their technological confidence was the Lurgan boat, the mother of dugout canoes. It’s basically a fifty-foot oak cut down, split, and hollowed out. Looked to have room for thirty people or more, a whole community.

But then bronze. The technological transition never seemed as dramatic to me as when I saw the new bronze swords and spearheads next to the old stone knives and axes. It must have been on a par with the invention of gunpowder. But it meant huge social change too. An isolated community can fashion stone tools. Bronze is made from raw materials you have to trade for.

And with this new metallurgy, gold. What ancient Irish smiths did with gold is nobody’s business. Work that could have been buried with Pharaohs has been dug out of bogs. Virtually all of it jewellery – after all, what else useful can you make from the stuff? The weird thing perhaps is that there were so few designs, speaking of a pretty unified culture. Just torcs, collars, clothing fasteners, bracelets, boss-headed “sunflower” pins and what are still known as “boxes”, though by current theory these were actually inserted in pierced ears much like the plates worn by some peoples in Africa. Except, you know, made out of gold. They were hollow and contained beads so that they’d rattle, which must have provided a constant pleasant reminder of just how rich you were. An illustration of an ancient leader decked out in all this stuff gave the distinct impression that he must have clanked like a Transformer.

And all this before history even started. Will definitely have to go back.

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