Agency and Social Dynamism in Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age Ireland and Malta

PhD Candidate:Eimear Meegan
Supervisors: Professor gabriel Cooney
Funded By: AD ASTRA John Hume Institute for Global Irish Studies


For the most part change will occur on a scale so minute as to render it imperceptible to those who affect it, and whom it, in turn, effects. However, there are some periods of change, the effects of which are so far reaching, they cannot go unnoticed. It is this large-scale social change, specifically within an island setting, which forms the basis of my research.

The impetus behind such an island-based approach is the apparent tendency to view change within island societies as either externally or environmentally driven. As a result of this, archaeologists have often portrayed island inhabitants as passive recipients of an identity over which they have limited control.  The crux of my research is, therefore, the character of island discourse and identity; it considers whether this identity was dictated exclusively or largely by geographic factors, or whether island inhabitants were actively involved in the process of change, forging their own identities. In addressing this question I will focus on two islands – Ireland and Malta – whose Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age societies, as indicated by the evidence for ritual practice, appear to have undergone significant changes.

Traditional interpretations of these changes were founded upon a variety of invasion hypotheses, ranging from the arrival in Ireland of multiple waves of seemingly passive immigrants, to the wholesale replacement of Maltese society by a group of violent invaders from the South of Italy. In more recent times however, with the onset of post-colonialism, the likelihood of invasion, where both islands are concerned, has been called into question, and the notion of a cultural diffusion of ideas has received increased attention. Taking these more recent discussions as a point of departure, I will focus not on the external sources of new ideas and practices, but on internal discourse, considering why existing populations chose to adopt new forms of expression.  

Two distinct datasets will form the basis of my enquiry - one spatial and one artefactual. Where spatial data is concerned, a phenomenological line of enquiry will be adopted and used to explore the perceived movement away from the concealment of ritual activities within megalithic structures, towards their more public display within what can be decsribed as more open, accessible monuments. In Ireland, this movement manifested itself in the decline of the passage grave and the appearance of hengiform monuments, while in Malta, the construction of the earlier temple complexes came to an end, to be replaced by the building of dolmens. Drawing heavily on the notion of artefactual biographies or life histories, the study will also involve an indepth analysis of associateded ritual paraphenalia, which took on a decidedly exotic flavour at this time, a development epitomised on both islands by the introduction of metal objects. Where both datasets are concerned, analysis will focus on data relatating to a series of carefully chosen case studies.

In applying the methods outlined in brief above, this project will explore the way in which agents were brought into being in Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age Ireland and Malta. In doing so, it will also shed light on the nature and distribution of power at the time, and on the role of intentionality. Finally, the very different maritime and cultural geographies within which the two islands are set will provide valuable insight into the subtleties of the interplay between external, internal and environmental factors, while the different geographic scales involved will ensure contribution to the debate on whether smaller and larger islands can and should be compared.

The larger of two dolmens at Wied Filep, Malta

A view from within the henge at Dowth, Co. Meath, looking south west towards the entrance