Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Isles' First Gold Rush

By J.S. Dunn

What was daily life like in prehistoric Prydain (Britain) or Eriu (Ireland)? Now that the Isles' academics are busily digging in their own back garden, rather than the Mideast or Greece per the 19th century, exciting local discoveries seem to pop up every week. A drastically revised picture of the ancient Isles emerges, and with it a new paradigm for the Isles that contrasts with the old construct for 'Celts' and the origin of Gaelic language and culture.  In order to write convincingly of that ancient setting, one should have an overview of the years 3000 BCE forward, well before the Iron Age or any Roman influence. The Isles' tribes were hardly the backward brutes depicted by Roman authors as of the late Iron Age. The neolithic era rocked! By around 3000 BCE, little Orkney held sway as a north Atlantic power center, at its massive temple complex of expertly fitted stone. Excavation at Orkney continues; exciting finds include painted walls and a humanistic figure (both firsts in Isles prehistory).

In fact, the Isles had sophisticated marine trade networks with the Continent as early as the neolithic. Jadeite stone axes from the Alps have been found in the UK and Ireland.  A cultural influence from Iberia was the megalith.  Megaliths played a focal role and dramatically changed the landscape. The passage mounds range from Iberia, to the Morbihan, and Bru na Boinne/Newgrange, and up to Maes Howe at Orkney. Megaliths erected during the neolithic reveal a culture of astronomy lovers. The intricately carved boulders and inner orthostats are acknowledged to be engineered observatories for movements of sun, moon, and constellations.

Image - public domain via Wikipedia

Most still accurately track celestial events of solstice, equinox, lunar phases, and other phenomena. The great passage inside Newgrange, the central mound at Bru na Boinne, runs over nineteen meters (60 feet) in length, and still welcomes the rays of winter solstice sunrise after more than 5,200 years. Stone circles such as Stonehenge reflect a later tradition emphasizing solstice, a solar event. Further study at Orkney may indicate why the culture shifted from emphasizing passage mounds and use of interior sunlight, to stone circles where the megalith casts a shadow. Obviously, more of the people could attend and witness an outdoor ritual than inside a passage mound chamber. Stonehenge has evidence of large feasts. We might not understand what the ancients believed or worshiped, but we can count the bones they left behind after feasting!

Note that at this time, Troy did not exist or was a few rudimentary huts; certainly, Carthage and Rome did not exist. The rivals for astronomy, if any, would be in Egypt but the Giza pyramids had not been constructed. Feel that paradigm shifting?

Around 2400 BCE, showy gold neckpieces – GOLD!– called lunulae due to the wide crescent shape, spread from Eriu to Wales and Cornwall,  and to Brittany and the Continent. One such lunula is shown below. A gold rush began in the Isles.  During that time the massive stone-lined passage mounds from Orkney, Newgrange, Anglesey/Ynys Mon, the Morbihan, and down to the Tagus river in Iberia, fell into disuse. What happened to the neolithic starwatchers?
Author - Johnbod

The answer appears to be: warriors. Metal daggers of copper made their first appearance in the Isles, again in Eriu then along Wales and Cornwall coasts.  The introduction of metal smelting brought great social changes. Genetically, the metal-using newcomers have been identified with archaeology's Beaker people. They used distinctive flat-bottomed pots and drinking cups, the latter being part of a warrior's equipment. These brave lads jumped onto little more than a bread board in northern Spain and set off for Eriu and the Isles to scout for gold and copper and tin. The warrior culture they brought with their long knives of copper and bronze remained with the Isles up to the Iron Age.

Try this: imagine you stand on Iberia's northwest corner ( on the costa verde) looking due north. Sailing north lands your vessel on the southwest corner of Ireland.  That is where northern Europe's earliest copper mine, circa 2500 BCE, has been excavated. Shortly after the copper find, a flood of gold was moving around the Isles; from Irish sources and later, gold also in Wales and Cornwall. It is possible the early mariners moved along the Bay of Biscay and up around Brittany (Ar Mor) and then to Ireland's southwest.  At any rate, a Beaker pot when analyzed showed chemical traces from Brittany; that pot was found at Lough Lein, Ireland.

Welsh and Irish mythology, the oldest in western Europe, contain embedded clues to cultural origins and dating. These heroes are not ethereal figures lolling on clouds and directing the fate of mortals below; these are sweating, swearing, fornicating, men and women who live to the fullest. There is rebellious Cliodhna, who left the 'copper coast' of Eriu in a boat with a lover only to be drowned; her myth says the boat had a copper stern.  And the myth of the smith Lein, who worked at the Lake Of Many Hammers.  When archaeologist William O'Brien dug in at Lough Lein (Ross Lake) in county Kerry,  he discovered the oldest copper mine in the Isles.  The myths' references to copper dates to the second millennium or very ancient folk memory in Cork and Kerry; after around 1600 BCE copper was no longer mined there! That date is well before the prior paradigm for when Gaelic was spoken in Eriu or Wales. So what language was being spoken, by the newcomers who mixed with the indigenous tribes?

Linguist John Koch asserts, with others, that Gaelic language and culture were incubating in the Isles, and carried from the Isles to the Continent by marine traders. Gaelic thus began on the coasts, that is to say in the west and in the Isles.  Protogaelic language and culture moved from west to east.  Trade moved on rivers like the Loire from west to east.  Also, Gaelic developed much earlier than had been imagined by 19th century theorists; Gaelic developed during the Bronze Age from the early second millennium forward, and not during the later Iron Age.  Research by Koch on inscriptions in southwest Iberia has shown that rudimentary Gaelic was in use well before the Romans came along and prior to any 'invasion' of Celts.

Finally, the genetic evidence shows no big wave of invaders swamping the natives at any time.  There is a substrate from the neolithic; a new blip occurs on the genetic radar with the Beaker people in the mid third millennium BCE, and then no new genetic infusion until the Vikings and Saxons. Many areas of Ireland, and west Scotland and Wales, have retained a strong neolithic genetic signature.  If your father's or brother's genetic Y haplotype is R1b1b2 (also termed M269), congratulations: you're stone age.  The old model of waves-of-invading-Celts just doesn't hold up in the Isles or in Iberia.

Chasing down the details of prehistory need not be dull and not all the research is serious; for example, on the subject of the fulacht fiadh (pronounced foolah fee). This item is a wooden trough sunk into the earth and usually associated with a nearby pile of cracked and burned rocks. For years, academics debated whether the trough was used for a) cooking a joint of beef by adding red hot stones to hot water, or b) having a bath either after or in lieu of the beef feast, or c) brewing beer.  Since these cooking pits are almost all found in Ireland, research eventually explored option c, the brewing, with happy results duly written up and reported in a professional journal.

That grinding hum in the background is the old paradigm shifting. 'Celtic' as a term may survive with reference to a swirling, organic style of surface decoration that was widespread during Europe's Iron Age, and for certain US sports teams. Sir Barry Cunliffe, emeritus head of European Archaeology, Oxford, advocated for Celtic-from-the-west as a new model beginning in his 2001 volume, Facing The Ocean: The Atlantic and Its Peoples 8000BC-AD 1500.  Cunliffe's monograph is hefty and costly, but totally worth the read if not indispensable.  Reading old material on 'Celts' or prehistory of the Isles that was published prior to this decade is risky. The new finds in field archaeology, the archaeolinguistics, and archaeogenetics, are just that stunning and deserve awareness if not understanding. Similarly, it pays to keep up with current archaeology noting that individual sites and finds should be put into the larger context as they arise.

The gold said to be hidden in the Isles' ancient mounds can be seen as renewable, for it is the inspiration from the starwatchers and the brave marine voyagers.

[image of knife and shield courtesy of Both images courtesy of Neil Burridge, Cornwall bronze craftsman.
See Burridge website at]


J. S. Dunn resided in Ireland during the past decade, and from there pursued early Bronze Age culture along the Atlantic coasts of Spain, France, Wales, Cornwall where the author poured a bronze sword, Orkney, and Ireland. The author is a huge fan of RyanAir for jetting around to unusual places.
Numerous archaeologists and experts vetted the details of BENDING THE BOYNE. A second novel set at 1600 BCE, STEALING TARA, is forthcoming.
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