Iron Age


The Irish Iron Age (300 BC-400 AD) is generally perceived as somewhat of an enigma, particularly following on from the richness displayed in the settlements,
ritual and material culture of the preceding Bronze Age. The Iron Age is poorly understood due to the scarcity of its settlement and material culture but though there are no known Iron Age sites around Lough Neagh, Iron Age artefacts have been recovered from Toome and dredging of the River Blackwater in 1968-72 and 1984-91. These include a bronze decorated scabbard, an iron axe head; a spear-head from Moy; a cylindrical spear-ferrule from Derrytresk townland (near Maghery townland); and two spear-butts from Maghery and Derrytresk. (Image: Bronze scabbard of La Tène type recovered from Toome area.  Copyright Ulster Journal of Archaeology.)

The most visible surviving remains in Ireland are its ‘Royal’ sites, such as Emain Macha (Navan Fort), Tara and Clogher, though other hillforts are known and have been excavated. However, the houses and lifestyle of the common people are little recognised in the archaeological record. That said some spectacular iron weapons and gold ornaments have been discovered which suggest a rich and vibrant tribal lifestyle. A possible settlement site of this period is located near Scrabo, at the northwest end of Strangford Lough and a coastal promontory fort is also known at Dunseverick, however the most important aspect of this period is its ‘history’ which survives as a series of oral stories and traditions which were written down in the early medieval period and are today known as the Táin bó Cuilage, seen as a window on the Iron Age and which give Ireland some of its most vibrant and vivid mythical characters such as Cúchulan. One feature of the Iron Age which stands out is that it is in Ireland aceramic, meaning the people appear not to have used pottery. This is in stark contrast to Britain and continental Europe where both the material culture and settlement and burial remains are well known and recorded. During the Iron Age, Britain was invaded by the Romans, yet there is no clear evidence for Roman contact with Ireland other than through a comparatively small number of artefacts and coins which some commentators see as little more than the spoils of raiding or trading. Without question this period is the least understood of our Prehistory.