A History of Ireland in 100 Objects: Ceremonial Axe, 3600 BC

Sat, Feb 19, 2011, 00:00

Even now, its sheen and colour are magnetically alluring, the jade green surface, mottled with darker veins and glimmers of light, polished to a high sheen. The shape is beautifully balanced between sharp edges and elegant curves. It was once thought that it must have come from China. But if it looks exotic and mysterious now, 5,000 years ago in Ireland it would have seemed astonishing.

The jadeite axe, from the Erris peninsula in Co Mayo, was never used to cut anything. It was always a rare object, made to enhance the prestige of its owner. We now know just how exotic this one was: in 2003, it was established that the axe came from what was then an extraordinarily distant source: a quarry high in Mount Viso in the Italian Alps. It required enormous labour to mine and transport it. And it was already old – the manufacture of these specialist axes ended around 4,000 BC.

The axe tells us two big things. One is that Ireland was already part of a European-wide network. It travelled first to northwestern France, where it was polished. Then it made its way, either directly or through Britain, to west Mayo. And similar jadeite axes from Mount Viso were being imported into Denmark and Germany. The society that was emerging in Ireland was tangibly European, shaped by contact with the wider world. Mary Cahill of the National Museum believes that the axe may have been given as part of a “bride price” or dowry.

The second big thing is agriculture. Why is this ultra-prestigious object an axe? Because it was axes that allowed the dense woodlands to be cleared.

The axe was the symbol of human power over nature. This piece of Italian exotica points us towards the single biggest transformation in Irish history: the adoption of farming shortly after 4,000 BC.

It is tempting to see the jade axe as evidence of new, Neolithic people coming to Ireland and bringing the revolutionary idea of farming with them.

Certainly, since the wild ancestors of wheat, barley, cattle and sheep did not exist on the island, they had to be introduced from the outside. But we simply do not know how this process happened, whether it was a slow evolution or whether it came as a package with new settlers. The scarce evidence tends to suggest a slow process – like the long progress of the axe itself from Italy to Ireland.

What we do know is that agriculture changed everything. It transformed the landscape, with the clearing of trees to make way for cereals and pasture.

The introduction of domestic beasts doubled the number of large mammal species on the island. Farming created larger-scale settled communities with a strong sense of territory and ownership. And it created chieftains rich enough to own a fabulously exotic object.


Thanks to Mary Cahill, assistant keeper at the National Museum of Ireland

Where to see it:National Museum of Ireland, Kildare Street, Dublin 2, museum.ie