The Irish Iron Age - Beyond Celts and Romans

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bradford
Department Name: Sch of Life Sciences


Although Ireland is commonly perceived both academically as well as by the public as the archetypical 'Celtic' country, the archaeological record has actually never provided unambiguous evidence for this. Until recently, questions of cultural identity in this period (c. 800BC-AD400) could not be addressed satisfactorily as evidence for any human activity was effectively absent for large parts of the country and the period. While the iconic Royal sites such as Tara or Navan and some of the finest examples of European Celtic style metalwork suggested the presence of a populous and sophisticated society, no evidence for the everyday lives of these people had been found. In addition, a lack of virtually any evidence for any human activity between c.800-400BC made it impossible to progress the debate about cultural and ethnic identities. Ideas about these issues were shaped either by concepts of a hierarchical Continental Celtic culture, or by over-literal readings of the highly problematic early Irish medieval written records often thought to contain echoes of prehistoric social structures. A similar debate with strikingly different resonance has been led about the Roman or Romano-British material. This has, like the 'Celtic' finds, been discussed as either evidence for an invasion or the results of some other form of contact with little impact on the ethnic or political structure of the country. Ironically, while the 'Celtic' material is in the public accepted as evidence for an ethnic 'Celticisation' of the country, the Romano-British equivalent is rejected as implying any such process. Disjointed from the academic debate about these issues, the idea of a Celtic country that was never subjected to any significant influence from the Roman world is deeply embedded in Irish public consciousness, and similarly so in other modern 'Celtic' countries such as Scotland, Wales or Brittany. An enormous increase in the number and scale of excavations during the building boom years of the 'Celtic Tiger' and the large-scale application of scientific dating techniques have now finally produced the previously missing evidence for life and living in the Iron Age. This data has been collated and examined in two previous projects in which the applicant has been directly involved. Initial data was collated and reviewed in a Pilot Project directed by the applicant and funded by the Heritage Council of Ireland (2008). Subsequently the project 'Mobility, Climate and Culture: Re-modelling the Irish Iron Age' was funded through a British Academy Research Development Award (BARDA) directed by Professor Ian Armit (mentor for the current proposal). The present applicant was the post-doctoral fellow on the BARDA project and is co-author of all outputs. Together these projects have compiled more than 2000 radiocarbon dates from some 700 sites, transforming our potential for understanding of Iron Age Ireland. So far, however, the new dataset has been examined only quantitatively, in relation to issues of climate, demography and broad-scale period changes. The proposed study will provide a qualitative, interpretative study of the period that will explore in depth the life styles, economic and social structures of the Iron Age people of Ireland and tackle the issue of cultural identity during this formative period at the end of Irish prehistory. The discussion of cultural identity and change has always been central to the study of the Iron Age. After the abandonment of the Celtic paradigm in wide parts of Europe, these themes have recently moved into the focus of international academic debate once more. The newly assembled record from Ireland will allow us to address these problematic issues in a completely new manner and to contribute to the development of new models for cultural change in this period as exemplified in the 'Celtic' La Tène style material as well as the Roman material from Ireland at the periphery of both the 'Celtic' and the Roman worlds.

Planned Impact

Public: Within Ireland, there is great public and academic interest in this debate as issue of Celticity and a perceived Celtic ancestry of modern day Ireland plays a significant role in the construction of present-day identities. This is not just the case in Ireland, but also in Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany, and indeed in other parts of the world where substantial communities consider themselves to be of 'Celtic' descent. The idiosyncrasies of the archaeological record have long raised significant doubt over the existence of a Celtic Iron Age in Ireland making it ironic that the notion of a heroic, Celtic past and ancestry of the Irish state and its people, unspoilt by later Roman invasion continue to have a strong relevance for the formulation of Irish identities. Academic debates about these issues have not always filtered through to a wider public. The communication of the archaeology of this period and its conflict with traditional notions of Celticity will generate considerable interest. Rather than simply negating a Celtic past the proposed study will establish the character of the Iron Age in Ireland as represented in the newly enhanced archaeological record and discuss its implications in a way which will open up public debate. Rather than disillusionment it is hoped to inspire differentiated discussions about identity. This has particular relevance in a society which in the last 15 years has seen significant change through an influx of large numbers of peoples from all over the world for the first time in its modern history. Outside Ireland, a great interest in the country and its past exists, to a great extent also due to these notions about the countries' Celtic past. The issue of Celticity is of great interest not just in an Irish context and other modern Celtic countries such as Scotland, Wales or Brittany but also globally in regions such as the USA and Australia where communities consider themselves to be ethnically Celtic. Importantly, the idea of a Celtic past recently also played an important role in underpinning notions of a shared European past and as such in recent European political agendas. Public sector: Adding value to data that was to a great extent created through state-funded infrastructural developments makes this project highly relevant for the public sector. It will serve as evidence for how the spending of public moneys on archaeology can translate directly into knowledge about the past with immediate relevance for society at large. For institutions such as the National Roads Authority (NRA) that depend on state funding and have generated the bulk of the data its enhanced value will have great significance in developing, implementing and financing archaeological standards. Commercial sector: The data collection has depended to a great extent on the collaboration of archaeological companies. The private commercial archaeology sector in Ireland, while now reduced to a small size, will benefit from recognition of the value of the data it produced. At the same time, the critical analysis of the data conducted in the second stage of the project will highlight issues of dissemination and data quality, particularly radiocarbon dating sampling strategies. The results of this can feed back into the commercial sector directly and indirectly through policy developments in Ireland as well as the UK and thus have impact on future professional practice. The results of the project will also have immediate relevance for the interpretation of ongoing and future excavations of Iron Age sites as well as excavation and post-excavation strategies in in providing the necessary comparative material and research agendas.


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Description The research funded by the AHRC early career fellowship allowed the detailed analysis of the newly excavated Late Bronze Age and Iron Age record of Ireland with the objective of creating a new narrative for the period, focusing on issues of cultural and regional identity. About 500 archaeological sites and more than 2000 radiocarbon and dendro dates were included in an analysis that considered distributional,chronological patterns and integrated the evidence for everyday life provided by the new excavation with that for the ritual and super-regional activity. This allowed developing models of cultural change and social organisation and allowed putting great emphasis on the development of regional pre-histories.
Exploitation Route The findings make accessible a completely new picture of Irish Late prehistory as provided by the newly emerged archaeological record. The publication will make this accessible and usable in third level teaching, will provide a basis for further research by making the material accessible and will also outline and establish research needs for the period which may find consideration in future research projects and in ongoing excavation practice.
Sectors Education,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description The book has not yet been published but there is awareness of the research in the archaeological community and I have presented findings in both academic as well as public contexts.
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

Description INSTAR Archaeology Grant
Amount € 135,000 (EUR)
Funding ID AR04557 
Organisation Heritage Council (Ireland) 
Sector Public
Country Ireland, Republic of
Start 01/2015 
End 12/2017