Pair of gold discs, 2200-2000 BC

Sat, Mar 26, 2011, 00:00

A history of Ireland in 100 objects:The working of metals may have come late to Ireland, but the island then became one of the most important metal-producing centres in Europe. Ireland had large resources of copper and gold: new sources of wealth and power.

Early smiths made copper axes and traded them to Britain. That this trade worked both ways is evident from the development of bronze objects. The tin that was alloyed with copper to make the bronze probably came from Devon and Cornwall.

But it was gold, then as now, that had the brightest aura of ritual significance. The working of metal was a cultural as well as an economic activity. Even into the beginning of the modern era the idea of alchemy – the transformation of one substance into another – combined science with magic. In the early Bronze Age the ability of metalworkers to turn crude rock into objects of dazzling brightness must have imbued them with some sense of the magical. This must have been especially true of gold, not least because it was extremely rare at this time. The people who sifted gold in streams and rivers in the Mourne Mountains had searched hard for a material they knew to be especially precious.

There is also a natural connection between the brightness of gold and the power of the sun. In Indo-European languages, including the one spoken in Bronze Age Ireland, the word for “god” is derived from a root meaning “shine”. We know from the older Irish megalithic tombs that rituals of the sun had immense meaning. That some of this was now focused on gold objects is suggested by the production early on of decorated discs of sheet gold.

They were probably stuck to a backing material and may have been worn as marks of high political status, high religious status or both.

These discs from Tydavnet, in Co Monaghan, are by far the biggest and most sophisticated yet found; their crosses are elaborated with rows of dots, lines and zigzag patterns, created using a range of techniques.

The general belief is that the discs relate to a cult of the sun and that the cruciform shapes of the design are intended to represent its life-giving rays. There is little direct evidence of this cult in Ireland, but rock-art images from contemporary Denmark show clear images of people worshipping the sun, which is represented in the same way as the Irish discs.

The sun, in this cult, may have been a goddess rather than a god. One interpretation of the gold discs is that they were placed as symbolic breasts on the chest of a king, creating an image that fused the leader with the life-giving deity. If this is so, the discs belong to an Irish tradition of associating kingship with the sun that continued long after the arrival of Christianity.


With thanks to Mary Cahill and Éamonn Kelly of the National Museum of Ireland

Where to see itNational Museum of Ireland, Kildare Street, D2, museum.ie