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Bronze Treasures Beyond Belief: The Fabulous Dowris Hoard of Ireland

Bronze Treasures Beyond Belief: The Fabulous Dowris Hoard of Ireland

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Over 200 pieces of a precious treasure were hidden underground in Dowris, County Offaly, in Ireland. When the artifacts were discovered by farm workers in the 1820s, no one could imagine the importance of their find.

Trying to date this hoard isn't an easy task. The remarkable treasure has been dated back to 900-600 BC (the Late Bronze Age), however, some researchers suggest that the treasure belongs to the Stone Age - which is also logical. In Ireland, the Stone Age took place until about 750 BC. In other parts of Europe, this period is called Hallstatt culture C, but that group never arrived to Ireland. The people who lived during Hallstatt culture C/ the Stone Age/ the Late Bronze Age left impressive artifacts such as unique and high quality gold jewelry, tools, weapons, trumpets, and other artifacts that are greatly valued.

Part of the Dowris Hoard.

Part of the Dowris Hoard. (Trustees of the British Museum/ CC BY NC SA 4.0 )

Finding the Mysterious Hoard

The historian T.D. Cooke reported the find in the Dublin Penny Journal of 1833. He wrote that about ten years earlier a man known as Ed Hennessy and another person accidentally dug up the bronze pieces in a potato patch. The site is located half way between the Whigsborough House and Dough Cowra. The hoard consisted of cauldrons, horns, axe heads, bronze spearheads, and some smaller artifacts. The Earl of Rosse and T. D. Cooke took all the objects. They did not inform any other specialists about the hoard’s existence for some time. Cooke finally reported the discovery to the Royal Irish Academy many years later. Most of the site’s archaeological evidence was lost forever because of his delay.

Copper alloy latchet found in the Dowris Hoard.

Copper alloy latchet found in the Dowris Hoard. Source: Trustees of the British Museum/ CC BY NC SA 4.0

A majority of the artifacts were made of bronze and their quality transformed the perception of Bronze Age people who lived in Ireland. A lack of resources makes analysis of artifacts from before St. Patrick’s arrival in Ireland (432 AD) very difficult. The famous saint’s arrival relates to the area’s Christianization, but also to the destruction of old documents created by people who didn't follow Christianity. Although the first traces of humans in Ireland comes from the 6th millennia BC, information about their lives is limited.

An icon of St. Patrick.

An icon of St. Patrick. (Ted/ CC BY SA 2.0 )

The lack of information from original resources, damaged archaeological sites, and an absence of cataloging discoveries brings more questions than answers about Ireland’s earliest history. Regarding the Dowris Hoard, it is known that pieces are located now at the British Museum and the National Museum of Ireland, however, this is not the complete collection that was discovered in the early 19th century.

The Meaning of Bronze in the Dowris Phase

The collection of bronze pieces from the Dowris Hoard has also influenced archaeological terminology. The Irish Late Bronze Age is known the Dowris Phase due to the magnificent discovery made in Dowris.

Part of the weapon collection of the Dowris Hoard.

Part of the weapon collection of the Dowris Hoard. ( Trustees of the British Museum/ CC BY NC SA 4.0 )

According to Michael J. O'Kelly, and Claire O'Kelly: “The Dowris Hoard contained no less than twenty-four horns in varying degrees of preservation, the majority of them of Class I, some of them now in NMI and some others in the British Museum. The Dowris Hoard and another from Co. Clare provide the only two instances where Irish Horns were found in association with other metal objects, and for this reasons it is difficult to assign a range of dates of the instrument. (…) Bronze was also used to fashion ornaments such as rings, bracelets, pins, etc. There is great variety in the latter from the simple straight-shanked pin with a swelling on the head, often ornamented, to the plain disc-headed pin with sideloop on the stem. In the Dowris Phase the disc on the head of the pin has a central knob surrounded by fine concentric grooves, and in some examples the disc is attached so as to be parallel to the line of the pin. These are known as sunflower pins. Eoghan distinguishes another type of pin in the Dowris Phase, the cup headed pin, of which at least nine are known in Ireland. Instead of the disc, the top of the pin, at right-angles to the shank, has a slight depression or cup-like hollow, undecorated.”

A copper alloy musical horn from the Dowris Hoard.

A copper alloy musical horn from the Dowris Hoard. ( Trustees of the British Museum/ CC BY NC SA 4.0 )

These descriptions help one to understand the magnificence of the Dowris Hoard. The people who created the artifacts were sophisticated artists and their methods were well-developed.

An Ancient Offering and Modern Marvel

The Dowris Hoard is so large that researchers had to ask why someone decided to accumulate so many precious items in one place. Unfortunately, the hoard’s discoverers didn't think to record if they found it in one deposit or in a multiple of small deposits in the same area. This information would be priceless to understanding the hoard’s meaning.

Although the old lakes in Dowris are now drained, Eoghan Cole believes the hoard could have been a ritual offering related to water, lakes, or rivers. Cole also suggests that the hoard’s horns and crotals might represent a ceremonial practice that involved a bull. The artifacts representing the animal’s fertile features may be the key to unlocking the hoard’s mystery.

The Dowris Hoard is one of the most popular treasuries in Ireland today. It is a symbol of a lost culture and a mysterious group of people whose relics are still visible in many parts of the country. The Dowris Hoard is important to deciphering Irish origins, yet it is also a riddle that has yet to be completely solved.

A collection of items from the Dowris Hoard in the National Museum of Ireland.

A collection of items from the Dowris Hoard in the National Museum of Ireland. ( Rick Neal )

Top Image: Main: Castle ruins in Offaly, Ireland, close to where the Dowris Hoard was found. ( CC / Mike Searle ). Inset: Part of the Dowris Hoard. (Trustees of the British Museum/ CC BY NC SA 4.0 )

By Natalia Klimczak

References:

Michael J. O'Kelly, Claire O'Kelly, Early Ireland: An Introduction to Irish Prehistory, 1989.

Theodore William Moody, Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, A New History of Ireland, Volume 1, 2005.

The Dowris Treasure, available at:
https://www.offalyhistory.com/reading-resources/archaeology/the-dowris-treasure

The Dowris Hoard, available at:
http://www.shee-eire.com/Arts&Crafts/Celtic/Metalwork/hoards/Dowris/dh1.htm

Comments

*early medieval period* (damned predictive text!)

The Dowris latchet was NOT part of the Dowris hoard. The name refers to the town land (aka Whigsborough) where they were found. The hoard dates to the Bronze Age alright but the latchet dates tithe earth medieval period - probably 6th/7th century AD! They were not found together.

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