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A gold lunula from County Wicklow. The piece, dating from 2400 BC to 2000 BC, is in the  British Museum. Note the decorations etched into the ends or horns of the lunula.

Ancient Trade Route reveals Prehistoric Inhabitants of Ireland preferred Exotic Gold

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A new study using scientific methods to examine where Irish gold came from has found that there may have been trade between Ireland and southwest England about 4,500 years ago. Scientists speculate that people in England may have traded gold to Irish people for what the English considered more valuable commodities. But the Irish may have put a special, esoteric premium on the fabled mineral.

“This implies gold was leaving the region because those who found it felt it was of more value to trade it in for other ‘desirable’ goods, rather than keep it,” said Chris Standish of the University of Southampton. He is co-author of a new article in the journal Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society that explains research into determining the origin of gold in Ireland to its source—Cornwall.

In some ancient societies, gold was a major part of belief systems and was thought to have supernatural and magical powers. It was considered more of a supernatural than an economic substance. There is no way to know whether this was true in Ireland 4,500 years ago due to the absence of written records.

But co-author Alistair Pike said: “'The results of this study are a fascinating finding. They show that there was no universal value of gold, at least until perhaps the first gold coins started to appear nearly two thousand years later. Prehistoric economies were driven by factors more complex than the trade of commodities – belief systems clearly played a major role.”

A piece from the Broighter Gold Hoard now in the National Museum of Ireland

A piece from the Broighter Gold Hoard now in the National Museum of Ireland (Photo by Ardfern/ Wikimedia Commons )

The study rules out an Irish source for the gold despite easily accessible and rich Irish deposits. The abstract states:

A non-Irish source for the gold is preferred– a scenario that may favour cosmologically driven acquisition, i.e., the deliberate procurement of a material from distant or esoteric sources. Available geochemical data, combined with current archaeological evidence, favour the alluvial deposits of south-west Britain as the most likely source of the gold.”

Standish explained: “It is unlikely that knowledge of how to extract gold didn’t exist in Ireland, as we see large scale exploitation of other metals. It is more probable that an exotic origin was cherished as a key property of gold and was an important reason behind why it was imported for production.”

The book Treasuries of Irish Art: 1500 BC to 1500 AD Ireland has the richest collection of prehistoric gold ornaments in western or central Europe. “The gold ornaments are remarkable for their striking beauty—the simplicity of their shapes and geometrical decoration,” it states.

The "Great Torc" from the English Snettisham Hoard,

The "Great Torc" from the English Snettisham Hoard, 1st century BC. ( Wikimedia Commons )

The book says the most popular shape for gold pieces in Ireland in the early Bronze Age was the half-moon or lunula. Lunulae were made of thin sheets of hammered gold and the ends, or horns, incised with designs.

The new study overturns many decades of belief that early Bronze Age Irish gold pieces were made from Irish gold. Treasuries of Irish Art says the gold in those pieces likely came from gold nuggets in the Avoca River and other rivers in County Wicklow.

Pike and Standish examined lead isotopes in minuscule fragments and compared the Irish gold works in the Museum of Ireland to gold from several locations, concluding it came from Cornwall.

Featured image: A gold lunula from County Wicklow. The piece, dating from 2400 BC to 2000 BC, is in the  British Museum. Note the decorations etched into the ends or horns of the lunula. ( Wikimedia Commons )

By Mark Miller

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