A history of Ireland in 100 objects

Sat, Mar 5, 2011, 00:00

Flint macehead, 3300-2800 BC

This ceremonial macehead, found beneath the eastern chamber tomb at the great passage tomb at Knowth, in the Boyne Valley, is one of the finest works of art to have survived from Neolithic Europe. The unknown artist took a piece of very hard pale-grey flint, flecked with patches of brown, and carved each of its six surfaces with diamond shapes and swirling spirals. At the front they seem to form a human face, with the shaft hole as a gaping mouth.

If it was made in Ireland, the object suggests that someone on the island had attained a very high degree of technical and artistic sophistication.

The archaeologist Joseph Fenwick has suggested that the precision of the carving could have been attained only with a rotary drill, a “machine very similar to that used to apply the surface decoration to latter-day prestige objects such as Waterford Crystal”. If this is so – and it is hard to understand how the piece could have been made otherwise – the technology predates that used in the classical world by 2,000 years.

The association of this extraordinary work with one of the great passage tombs tells us something about the society that constructed those enduringly awe-inspiring monuments. It was rich enough to value highly specialised skills and artistic innovation. And it was becoming increasingly hierarchical, with an elite capable of controlling large human and physical resources.

Knowth and the other great tombs were statements. As the archaeologist Alison Sheridan puts it, “Quite simply, they were designed to be the largest, most elaborate and most ‘expensive’ monuments ever built.” The insertion of a fabulous object like the macehead added to the sense that they were “a means for conspicuous consumption, designed to express and enhance the prestige of rival groups”.

This prestige was asserted in the tombs in three ways. One was the possession of awe-inspiring objects like this one. The second was the use of astrological knowledge to demonstrate a link with the celestial world and the passage of the seasons, what Sheridan calls a hotline to the gods. A phallus-shaped stone, also found at Knowth, suggests that fertility rituals were part of this mystique.

The last aspect of this elite prestige was the demonstration of international connections. While small tombs like that in Annagh (see last week’s object) honoured local heroes, the great tombs were self- consciously European. There are strong parallels between the tombs and passage graves on the Iberian peninsula and in northwest France.

The likelihood is not that the tomb-builders came from these places but that they were part of a network of Atlantic connections. Already in Ireland a strong sense of the local coexisted with a desire to be seen as part of the wider world.

* With thanks to Mary Cahill

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