The symbolical and social significance of iron in prehistoric and early medieval Ireland

PhD Candidate: Margaret Williams
Supervisor: Professor Gabriel cooney
Funded By: Irish Research Council Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholarship
Supported By: Research facilities UCD Humanities Institute


The primary aim of this research is to demonstrate that ironworking is key to our understanding of the socio-political and magico-religious spheres of power in the Iron Age/Early Medieval period. It is hoped to achieve this through detailed analysis of the archaeological record with specific emphasis on the location of ironworking and depositional practices related to iron combined with literary and ethnographic sources. In demonstrating that the material culture related to iron had symbolic and social significance in many spheres of life, and particularly in relation to death, we may understand the vital role ironworking had in making Iron Age/Early Medieval society.

As a result of the huge number of developer-funded excavations (mid 1990s - 2007), novel material has become available. This material was the primary data used in my MA thesis (Williams 2010). Analysis showed that a new type of large enclosed secular cemetery dating to the Early Medieval period (33 sites) were associated with ironworking (Williams 2010). Smiths were working either within the cemeteries or nearby. Analysis of depositional practices also revealed that enclosure ditches were bounded with iron-slag or marked out by iron objects; these were also included in graves. Drawing on literary sources and ethnographic studies, which suggest that ironworking was considered a mystical process, transformational, and iron itself a powerful and mystical material, the thesis made the argument that the smith had a magico-religious role in the funerary rite and that iron-slag in addition to iron objects had significant symbolic/metaphorical meaning.

The MA thesis was confined to Early Medieval burial sites; the proposed research will build and expand on this by extending back in time to the Iron Age and to consider other site types from both periods that have evidence of ironworking and/or artefacts (including slag) (e.g. 'royal sites', settlements, crannogs, ancient monuments (e.g. Neolithic passage tombs) and natural places).

Internationally, the social significance of ironworking and deposition in prehistoric times has been explored since the 1990s (e.g. Budd & Taylor 1995; Hingley 1997, 2005; Giles 2007). However, in Ireland, this is rarely addressed. Previous studies of ironworking (Scott 1991, Carlin et al. 2008) focused on the technological processes. However, O'Sullivan (2009) explored the theme of smiths working on crannogs in the Early Medieval. He suggested that smiths were deliberately maintaining a social distance to preserve the secrets of a specialist craft (O'Sullivan 2009, 86). A full picture of the location of the smith in the landscape (e.g. burial sites, settlements etc.) needs to be developed if we are to understand the social significance of ironworking.

Research to date in Ireland has not considered depositional practices of iron in a hollistic manner. Raftery (1994) and (Becker 2012) have looked at depostion of iron objects in watery locations. The former considered it votive practice the latter structured/selective deposition expressing regional identity. In contrast, deposition on land, particularly in relation to slag, is commonly considered 'industrial/metallurgical waste' dumped in pits/ditches (e.g. O'Connell 2009, Quade et al. 2009). A thorough analysis of all deposition is required to interpret possible social significance.

The huge number of new site data now available in Ireland offers a unique opportunity to examine this new material in detail through combined rich literary/mythological literature from Ireland and ethnographic studies.


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Budd, P. and Taylor, T. 1995 The faerie smith meets the bronze industry: magic versus science in the interpretation of prehistoric metal-making. World Archaeology, Vol. 27 (1), 133-143.

Carlin, N., Ginn, V. and Kinsella, J. 2008 Ironworking and production. In N. Carlin, L. Clarke and F. Walsh (eds.) The Archaeology of Life and Death in the Boyne Floodplain; The Linear Landscape of the M4, 87-112. Dublin.

Giles, M. 2007 Making metal and forging relations: ironworking in the British Iron Age. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 26(4), 395-413.

Hingley, R. 1997 Iron, ironworking and regeneration: a study of the symbolic meaning of metalworking in Iron Age Britain. In A. Gwilt and C. Haselgrove (eds.) Reconstructing Iron Age Societies, 9-18. Oxbow.

Hingley, R. 2005 Iron Age “currency bars” in Britain: items of exchange in liminal contexts? In C. Haselgrove and D. Wigg-Wolf (eds.) Iron Age Coinage and Ritual Practices. Studien zu Fundmünzen der Antike (SFMA) 20, 183–206.

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O’Connell, A. 2009 Excavations at Castlefarm – Director’s First Findings. In M. B. Deevy and D. Murphy (eds.) Places along the Way, First findings on the M3. NRA Scheme Monograph 5, 43-56. Dublin.

O'Sullivan, A. 2009 Early medieval crannogs and imagined islands. In G. Cooney, K. Becker, J. Coles, M.Ryan and S. Sievers (eds.) Relics of Old Decency: archaeological studies in Later Prehistory, 79-87. Dublin.

Raftery, B. 1994 Pagan Celtic Ireland, the enigma of the Irish Iron Age. London.

Scott, B. G. 1991 Early Irish Ironworking. Belfast.

Williams, M. 2010 Smiths, pits and burials: places for ironworking and burials in early medieval Ireland. (unpublished MA thesis).