Sunday 26 July 2015

Ór - Ireland's Gold

The earliest evidence for gold working dates to the fifth millennium BC. This is based on the discovery of the Varna cemetery which is located approximately half a kilometer from Lake Varna and 4 km from the Varna city centre in Bulgaria. The cemetery was dated to the period 4,600 BC to 4,200 BC. The cemetery belonged to the Charcolitic Varna culture. The graves of this cemetery were full of  golden artifacts and they are considered to be the oldest golden artifacts in the world.

These Varna guys were obsessed with gold. As a matter of fact, just one of the graves from the Varna cemetery, the so called golden grave (grave 43) contained more gold, than has been found in all the other archaeological sites in the world from that epoch...

It seems that this love of gold was not universal. The surrounding Balkan cultures like Vinca Culture seem not to care very much for gold and the situation was pretty much the same in the rest of Europe at that time.

It took over a 1500 years for gold work to reach Britain and Ireland. The first gold objects appear in Ireland at the end of the third millennium (2200 BC). But it seems that once the Irish discovered gold, they became obsessed with it and couldn't have enough of it. But it seems that the Irish had a very peculiar and exclusive taste when it came to the type of gold objects they liked. A few of these kind of thingies were found in the Early Bronze age archaeological site:

But it seems that the favorite type of golden trinkets of the late 3rd millennium Irish were these two types of gold objects: a peculiar gold lunulae and even more peculiar gold cross discs:

The Gold lunula (plural: lunulae) is a distinctive type of late Neolithic, Chalcolithic or (most often) early Bronze Age necklace or collar shaped like a crescent moon. Most have been found in Ireland, but there are moderate numbers in other parts of Europe as well, from Great Britain to areas of the continent fairly near the Atlantic coasts. Although no lunula has been directly dated, from associations with other artefacts it is thought they were being made sometime in the period between 2200–2000 BC. A wooden box associated with one Irish find has recently given a radiocarbon dating range of 2460–2040 BC.

Beautiful things don't you think? The Irish seem to think so too. Of the more than a hundred gold lunulae known from Western Europe, more than eighty were found in Ireland.

Here some examples of European (Non Irish) gold lunulas and gold discs from "'Here comes the sun....' solar symbolism in Early Bronze Age Ireland" by Mary Cahill.

Lunula and a pair of gold discs from Cabeceiras de Basto, Portugal (© MuseuNacional de Arqueologia)

Pair of gold discs from Oviedo,Spain (© J. Camino Mayor, MuseoArqueológico de Asturias)

This is what you can read on the National Museum of Ireland's website about the 3rd millennium Bronze Age Irish gold craze:

The National Museum of Ireland’s collection of Bronze Age gold work is one of the largest and most important in western Europe. The immense quantity of Bronze Age gold from Ireland suggests that rich ore sources were known. 

Gold has been found in Ireland at a number of locations, particularly in Co. Wicklow and Co. Tyrone. The gold is found in alluvial deposits from rivers and streams. This gold is weathered out from parent rock and can be recovered using simple techniques such as panning. These gold deposits are still exploited today.

This gold is weathered out from parent rock and can be recovered using simple techniques such as panning. In Wicklow mountains this technique is still used today by prospectors to find gold nuggets as you can see on the below picture and this video.

The Wicklow Mountains form the largest continuous upland area in Ireland. They occupy the whole centre of County Wicklow and stretch outside its borders into Counties Carlow, Wexford and Dublin. Where the mountains extend into County Dublin, they are known locally as the Dublin Mountains

Wicklow mountains are criss-crossed with thousands of streams and a lot of them carry gold and some of them carry a lot of gold.

This is the Wicklow gold nugget (or more precisely its replica).

This gold nugget, weighing 682 grams is the biggest gold nugget found on British Isles. It was found in the Ballin valley stream which is located near the town of Avoca in County Wicklow, Ireland, in September 1795. A cast of the ‘Wicklow Nugget’ is held in the Natural History Museum in London. The stories of how the nugget was discovered are many. One story is it was found by workers felling trees on an estate owned by Lord Carysfort. Another that it was found by a local school teacher walking on the banks of what is now the Goldmines River. Either way the nugget sparked the first and only gold rush in Ireland. The search for the source of the gold that can still be panned today in the rivers of Wicklow has gone on since 1795 but the mother lode has never been found.

So there is plenty of gold in Ireland. But how did the Irish learn how to find it, exploit it and make these amazing gold artifacts from it? The National Museum of Ireland's website say this:

While we do not know precisely how the late Neolithic people of Ireland became familiar with metalworking, it is clear that it was introduced as a fully developed technique. Essential metalworking skills must have been introduced by people already experienced at all levels of production, from ore identification and recovery through all stages of the manufacturing process....Basically the gold working had become well established in Ireland and Britain together with a highly productive copper and bronze working industry. 

What this basically says is that gold working was brought to Ireland by the outsiders, invaders, by the same people who brought copper mining and metallurgy. These guys arrived to Ireland between 2400 BC and 2200 BC looking for copper. And they found it. In huge quantities.

Records of mining in Ireland date back to the Early Bronze Age when southwest Ireland was an important copper producer, with evidence of old copper workings at Ross Island located in Killarney, Co Kerry.

Ross Island is a claw-shaped peninsula in Killarney National Park, County Kerry. Copper extraction on the site is believed to be the source of the earliest known Irish Pre-Bronze Age metalwork, namely copper axe heads, halberds and knife/dagger blades dating from 2,400 - 2,200 BC. These finds have been distributed throughout Ireland and in the West of Britain - in South Britain the metalwork was imported from across the Channel.

The archaeology of the site has unearthed both mining operations and a smelting camp where the Copper ore was processed into a type of metal distinctive enough to be traced these early tools. As there is no evidence that the complex technology had developed spontaneously, this early metallurgy would indicate contacts with mainland Europe - in particular, extending along the coastline from Spain through Normandy. The Ross island operation was associated with beaker pottery and continued until ca 1,900 BC

And at the same time we see the appearance of the gold artifacts in Ireland too. So something very interesting happened between the 6th millennium BC and the 3rd millennium BC on the European Metal scene. As I already said the earliest evidence for gold working dates to the fifth millennium BC Varna culture. The earliest evidence for copper working dates to the 6th millennium Vinča culture. And as I said already, for a while the gold dudes from Varna and the copper and bronze dudes from Vinča didn't really go out much and didn't mix with one another or anyone else for that matter. They were too busy digging, smelting and making Metal, perfecting their art you know. But then one day, probably at the end of the 4th millennium, the beginning of the 3rd millennium, they must have been invited to a party organized by these new foreign kids who just came to Europe, from the steppe. I mean those steppe dudes were mixing some strong stuff in them pots they had, and their parties were the hottest thing in town. So I guess the Copper dudes kitted themselves out with all the copper tools and the Gold dudes kitted themselves out with all the gold bling and went to the party. What happened at that party is a bit hazy. But at some stage someone, and I would bet it was one of those steppe kids, said something like this: "Hey you, the copper dudes! Have you ever thought of making weapons out of copper?! I know the agricultural tools are useful but they are not cool man! You know what's cool?! Daggers! And Axes! And you really have to start working on your image! You look too rough, too uncultivated, too like "Neolithic" or something! You need something like what those gold dudes are wearing! But you can't just wear shit loads of gold bling and expect girls to say "He is so cool"! No, that just makes you look like a sissy! What you really want is shit loads of copper weapons and shit loads of gold bling! Then you gonna look like gangstas! Girls love gangstas man!" The rest is history. From that moment on, a once relatively peaceful Europe is overrun by a bunch of copper weapons wielding, beaker quaffing gangstas, covered in gold...

The guys who jumped out of the boat on the Irish shore in the late 3rd millennium BC were one of those guys. But these were no sissies, a peace loving people who kept themselves to themselves. They came to Ireland to mine and process copper to make weapons and I am sure they knew how to use them. It is very possible that they very quickly make themselves the only gang in town. O and these gangstas loved gold. So they, employed the same mining and metallurgical skills they used to find, mine and process Irish copper to find and process Irish gold and turn it into gold lunulae and gold cross discs that they loved so much. Right? Not exactly.

Back to the National Museum of Ireland's website then goes on to say this:

Although gold has played an important part in the cultural history of Ireland, notably in the wealth of recovered gold ornaments,  records of gold extraction or its occurrence are relatively sparse and poorly documented prior to the 17th century....Although gold has been found in Ireland at a number of locations, particularly in Co. Wicklow and Co. Tyrone, it has not yet been possible to identify the ancient sources where gold was found (which was used for the Early Bronze Age gold artifacts found in Ireland)....

The National Museum of Ireland's website is basically saying that even though the Early Bronze Age Irish were heavily blinged, we have no idea where the gold used to make this bling came from. Well, it seems that the information on the National Museum of Ireland's website is slightly out of date. We actually now know where the gold used to make the early Bronze Age Irish bling came from, and it didn't come from Ireland. This is the result of the latest study conducted by the scientists from the Bristol university who recently, together with the scientists from Leeds university, compared the gold from which the early Irish gold artifacts were made, with the naturally occurring gold deposits in the British Isles. The results were published in the paper entitled: "The genesis of gold mineralisation hosted by orogenic belts: A lead isotope investigation of Irish gold deposits". You can also find them in the paper entitled "A Non-local Source of Irish Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age Gold".

Chris Standish, an archaeology PhD student in Bristol University used the latest advances in geochemistry to compare Irish native gold and museum gold using variations in the four natural types of lead atoms, or lead isotopes. The quantities of lead are tiny, around 0.002 per cent, and were measured using a mass spectrometer. The chemical composition of the material used to make the  early Bronze Age, 2,200 to 1,800 BC gold artifacts was cross checked and proved to be consistent. This suggests that all the early Bronze Age Irish gold have come from one area, possibly from river gravels. This chemical composition was then compared with the composition of all known Irish natural gold deposits. The chemical composition of the naturally occurring gold in Ireland was collected by the geologist Rob Chapman from Leeds University, who has spent hours standing in ice-cold streams and rivers across Ireland panning for gold. 

Scientists couldn’t find a match between any of the Irish gold deposits and the Museum gold. They examined likely areas, including the gold deposits from Mournes, Croagh Patrick, Counties Wicklow, Wexford and Waterford. Looking purely at the lead isotopes, gold in the artifacts is most consistent with gold from the southeast (Wicklow). But there is too little silver and trace metal for it to be a proper match. Standish suggests there may be gold he has yet to analyse, but another, controversial, explanation is gold imports. According to Chapman,The lead signature he [Standish] gained from the early Bronze Age artifacts corresponded to the granite rocks in Cornwall”. This means that the Early Bronze Age Irish gold artifacts were made from gold found and panned in Cornwall. 

This is a golden lunula from Cornwall dated to the period 2400BC-2000BC. Does it predate the Irish ones?

Chapman then went to say that the results of the study "have irritated some archaeologists".

So Chapman then had to add this to his paper:Natural gold does occur in Cornwall, but it is difficult to find and we cannot say categorically whether the gold content is compatible or not. Since the early Bronze Age, the land has changed so much that you cannot visit the same sites available to the Bronze Age people; some lie underwater. One possibility is that there is a deposit of gold somewhere in Ireland which has eluded modern prospectors but was used by Bronze Age people...."

Given extensive gold exploration in Ireland since the 1980s, a hidden source is somewhat unlikely, say geologists, dimming hopes of an Irish El Dorado. But it’s a possibility. And archaeologists and historians, who were irritated by the results of this study and who are refusing to accept the new geological data are clinging to it. 

One of those irritated archaeologists is Mary Cahill, curator of the National Museum of Ireland’s Bronze Age collection, who had this to say about the whole thing: "...there is no supporting archaeological evidence for extensive gold imports to Ireland at this time. We know that Irish copper and bronze objects turn up in Britain, but there are no signs of gold coming in. And clues pointing to southern Britain as a source for Irish gold are not conclusive....". This is a perfect example of how archaeologists and historians are refusing to accept the latest scientific data because it contradicts with commonly accepted theories of what happened. 

I also love the way these finds were actually interpreted by Standish: 

Lead author Dr Chris Standish says: “This is an unexpected and particularly interesting result as it suggests that Bronze Age gold workers in Ireland were making artefacts out of material sourced from outside of the country, despite the existence of a number of easily-accessible and rich gold deposits found locally.

“It is unlikely that knowledge of how to extract gold didn’t exist in Ireland, as we see large scale exploitation of other metals. It is more probable that an ‘exotic’ origin was cherished as a key property of gold and was an important reason behind why it was imported for production.

Isn't a much simpler and more logical explanation that the Early Bronze Age gold objects found in Ireland were made in the same place where the gold was found, in Cornwall and that they were then brought to Ireland as finished products? But that would make even more people even more irritated. This would effectively put an end to the accepted history and the story of the Early Bronze Age Ireland being the Golden Isle, the center of the European gold working crafts of that time ...So the official archaeology and history is surprised and irritated with the new data showing that the "Irish gold" was brought to Ireland. 

But guess what? The old Irish annals, the so called "pseudo history" tells us that the gold was "brought into Ireland" and that it was brought right about the time when the first gold artifacts start appearing in Ireland.

The old Irish annals tell us that the first race that lived in Ireland were Fomorians. Then, after the flood, came the people of Partholón who are credited with introducing cattle husbandry, plowing, cooking, dwellings, trade, and dividing the island in four. But Partholon also brought gold. 

Labor Gabala Erenn tells us that Partholon had with him two merchants: Biobhal (Bibal) and Beabhal (Babal). Babal brought cattle to Ireland, and Bibal brought gold.

So when did Partholon come to Ireland? 

The Annals of the Four Masters says they arrived in 2520 Anno Mundi (after the "creation of the world"), Seathrún Céitinn's Foras Feasa ar Érinn says they arrived in 2061 BC, Annals of Four Masters says that they arrived at 2680 BC. So Sometimes in the second half of the 3rd millennium. 

So far the "pseudo history" is right on the money. 

And finally where did the Parthalon come from?

The earliest surviving reference to the Partholóin is in the Historia Brittonum, a 9th-century British Latin compilation attributed to one Nennius. Here, "Partholomus" is said to have come to Ireland from Spain.

Seathrún Céitinn's 17th century compilation Foras Feasa ar Érinn, says that Partholón was the son of Sera, the king of Greece, and fled his homeland after murdering his father and mother. He lost his left eye in the attack on his parents. He and his followers set off from Greece, sailed via Sicily, around Iberia, and arrived in Ireland from the west, having traveled for seven years.

The Lebor Gabála Érenn, an 11th-century Christian pseudo-history of Ireland, tells us more. It tells us that Partholón came from either Sicily or Mygdonia which was an ancient territory, part of Ancient Thrace. According to the Lebor Gabála Érenn Partholon was the son of Sera, son of Sru, a descendant of Magog, son of Japheth (see Japhetites), son of Noah. Partholón and his people sail to Ireland via Gothia, Anatolia, Greece, Sicily and Iberia, and landing at Inber Scéne (Kenmare in County Kerry). This is the closest landing point next to the ancient Ross Island copper mine. This mine was the reason why the pot loving, copper weapons making and gold bling wearing Beaker gangstas came to Ireland. 

So is the Irish "pseudo history" right about the Balkans being the birth place of Partholon like it was about when he landed in Ireland, where he landed in Ireland and the fact that he and his people had brought gold to Ireland? I believe so. But I will talk about this in one of my next posts. 


  1. That's quite an interesting interpretation of the mythology ("pseudo-history"). So according to you, the Fomorians would be the first agricultural settlers (and megalith builders, I presume) and the Partholonians would be Bell Beaker people from Iberia, right?

    Incidentally Ireland is about the only place where Bell Beaker is associated with clear demographic growth so it is indeed possible that there was some sort of migration and resettlement, at least on the grounds of apparent demographic densities inferred from archaeological data.

    However you have skipped the part of the legend in which all the Partholonians die of plague, except a son, Tuan, who, by druidic "magic" of animal transformation through time (i.e. oral transmission) reached a time when the legend would be put into writing. What do you make of this alleged extinction? Naturally the Fomorians continued on and on, until the Fir Bolg and the Tuatha De Dannaan, i.e. Celts and celtization of Ireland in the Iron Age. My impression is that by these successive episodes of mass deaths, the legend seem to mean that they are absorbed into the pre-existent Irish population, which are the "eternal" Fomorians.

    Also what about the Nemedians and Cessairians, who belong to almost the same period? In the case of Cessair, the story of the idol is intriguing, because we see also in the Chalcolithic a sudden abundance of idols, some times compared to Balcanic forms, such as Cycladic idols.

    Anyhow, there are elements that unavoidably don't make much sense. It's mythology after all and talks of very ancient episodes, so the facts in them may or even must be blurry. But going on with mythology, there is this only Iberian or Tartessian (Turdetanian) myth collected by Trogus Pompeius which is the one of Gargoris and Habis, which also deals with the foundation of civilization. Gargoris was a king of the Iberian "Curetes" (same name as used for the Cretans in Zeus' legend) who discovered honey gathering but also raped his daughter and the incestuous son, Habis, who was abandoned but raised by animals. Habis was eventually captured and brought to Gargoris who acknowledged him as his heir. Habis, tired of the harsh life of the wilds, created laws and taught the people agriculture and cooking, abolished slavery and founded seven cities, whose successors ruled for centuries.

    I mention because there are in these legends, regardless of whatever real details, which I won't question if they look plausible, as is the case you bring forth, the fundamental issue of simplified narration of the transformation from "savagery" to "civilization", whose true complexity and extremely long history they certainly could not fully grasp.

    There are anyhow some parallels between Iberian and Irish ritual elements that may be of interest. For example, it is known that in Cape St. Vincent (westernmost point of mainland Europe), known as Sacred Cape to the Romans, rituals of bringing water and turning stones were performed before sunset, being the place taboo at night. My reference (Marco García Quintela) claims these are similar in concept to the elements of the Irish legend of Nechtan and Oengus, where there's a mix of water and fire (igneous water in Ireland, wet sun(-set) in Portugal) associated to a river (a human-carried "river" in the Portuguese case). Another element is the association of the doe with royalty (a doe is the last animal that feeds Habis).

    Just food for thought.

    1. The similarities in your last sentence are such a general that as well as we could talk about water-fire similarity between Irish and Slavic rituals as 'Kupala' and other similar.

    2. [[ few of these kind of thingies ]]

      Hard to take this kind of article seriously.

  2. Goran, in the ancient world the high chiefs had their own metal working caste. These royal smiths went where the ruler went and if the ruler was an expansionist kingdom builder, the craftsmen dispersed rather widely. It is not a coincidence that metal work, especially gold work, was associated with rulers and priests. Gold (Or/oro) was an attribute of Horus and Horite priests were skilled in gold work. Think of Aaron who crafted a golden bull calf with the sun cradled between its horns. Likewise, Moses crafted a bronze serpent on a rod.

  3. Perhaps gathering gold nuggets in Irish streams was violation of a taboo or a treaty. Perhaps, golden artifacts were produced in Ireland as well as Cornwall but we've not been able to recover them. I work gold myself from gathered flakes and nuggets. It melts at a rather low temperature, is easy to refine (if even necessary) without complicated technology, and is easy to work with minimal tools, all of which could be carried by a migrating chief's retainers on ancient boats. The so-called Beaker People were very migratory, and carried on busy trade on the Insular Isles and west Atlantic coast. They transported tin and copper ore, ingots, finished objects along their routes as they saw fit. Except for a general taboo and perhaps general antipathy towards exploiting natural resources of Ireland, which was considered a sacred island into the late Iron Age, how do we explain this because surely, upon the arrival of Celtic Tribes, dated variously from 1800 BCE to 800 BCE to 250 BCE to 100 CE or later depending on the current fashion of revisionist thinking, these resources became used, though not to the point where an ecological catastrophe ensued, because neither gold nor silver were basic economic units, only stuff for ornament among the insular Celts, though they were handy for external trade. And the evidence for the presence of many Celtic tribal groups is strong, though the top dogs evidently were Celts from the west of Iberia, the 'Belgic' tribes coming in a close second. It appears these all had arrived and become established long prior to the strong shift from Q to P in Celtic speech, otherwise how do we explain the survival of Q Celtic and so many Celtic and PIE archaicisms in the language? And their attitude towards gold was a survival from the PIE days. Cultures that locked onto Gold as an end in itself had their brief hey-days, like Tartessos, and faded away. Those who retained perspective, such as Ireland, sailed along, survived, developed further.

    The Viking raids in Ireland perhaps caused much of this ancient gold to disappear, as they really focused on monumental sites. An abbey or a cromlech, a plague grave or a gigantic monument such as New Grange all would have drawn their attention. They had no prohibition against any target, only the order to go and get treasure and captives by any means at hand.

    Little ancient gold from the Wendol period or earlier in Scandinavia is found because of their rapacious activity, They regularly plundered the ancient unburnt (non-Royal) burial and sacrificial sites on the isle of Uppsala, and generally, only foreign objects containing gold have survived, with a few silver Thor Hammers. Why would Ireland be different to them?

  4. Interesting article. I advice you to change the wording in the article, specifically to leave out the words as "pot", "bling", etc... you probably get it. Try describing your interpretations in a more mature way it will make you seem serious the scientific community you are aware of (linking academia articles, have more than average education in archeology, etc...). Also I would advise you to post references if you want this to be taken in any way serious.

    Wish you a lot of success in your future work.

    1. It is funny how people don't get jokes. I had white supremacists threatening me because i used "negro" language in my article. People should really lighten up. Archaeology and History don't have to be boring. As for references I always post links to articles I quote. If there is no quote, this means it is my original work.

  5. Enjoyed in very much, can not afford the References (lack of gold) but appreciate the active web links.

  6. Another great article Goran. Can we have a book please? :)

    1. Who would publish my scribbling

    2. Hope it does get published. After reading so many stuffed shirts on the topic this came thru as well researched ... And light on the starch.

  7. I am currently reading Mallory's The Irish Dreamtime which is about Irish myth and whether it has any truth in it. True to form it is very skeptical. I think the aim of the book is to bore its critics to death. If people will read that they would adore your work to say the least.

  8. Great information, thank you