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Art History Stone Age Essays

·         A ring of 97 big kerbstones surround the mound.  Some are decorated,  the entrance stone is the most impressive with its spirals.

·         Nobody knows the meaning of these spirals.

·         Kerbstone 52 is also richly decorated and is at the back of the mound and lines up directly with the entrance stone.

Newgrange extra notes:

The most famous of the valley moulds is noted for the roof box over its entrance, which allows sun to shine down the 18.7 m long passage into the furthest recesses of the chamber each year on the 21st of December.  The passage is formed by upright stones with lintels on top, some of which are decorated.  Between the first and second roof slabs of the passage, over the entrance, is a rectangular opening built in stone, which forms the roof box.  The upper lintel stone of this opening is carved with triangles, which create a pattern of raised X shapes separated by vertical lines.  The chamber at the end of the passage is roughly 6 m in diameter and 6 m tall.  It has three recesses, which create a cruciform plan like the east passage of Knowth.

Newgrange was built around 3200 Bc.  It was excavated from 1967 to 1975, when it was reconstructed into the shape that we see today.  The wall of white quartz came from Co. Wicklow and the granite beach stones came from in Co.Louth.  They were arranged in this way on the instructions of the Professor Michael J O Kelly, the chief archeologist, who imagined, based on his research, that the mound had been built like that when it was first constructed.  Ninety – seven kerbstones surround the base of the mound.  Many have fully decorated stones, such as the curvilinear patterned entrance stone and kerbstone 52 on the opposite side of the mound.  There is a further circle of monoliths at a distance of about 15 m out from the kerbstones.  Only 12 undecorated stones remain standing, out of the original 32.  This ring of standing stones may not be contemporary with the mound.


The building of these large structures was an heroic task for people of the stone age.  Their technology was limited to what they could carry, pull or lever into place, they had no beasts of burden and the wheel was not yet invented.  They had to move large stones up to 5 tons in weight across the country, which may have still been forested.  It has been established that it might have taken up to 80 men three weeks to pull one large stone the 15km from the quarry at Tullyallen up to Knowth.  At this pace, it may have taken 50 years to build one mound.  Construction probably began with the layout of the passages, as their orientation to the sun or moonlight was an essential part of the purpose of the structure.  The line of the kerb would need to be laid out early on, as it was the retaining structure for the stones, sod and earth that made up the body of the mound.


The corbelled roof over the chamber might have been  constructed as they level of the mound built up, allowing access to gradually higher levels.  These corbelled chambers are the oldest roofed stuctures still standing in .  The vaults were built on the standing stones of the chamber in gradually decreasing circles of large flat stones, sloping  slightly outwards.  At Newgrange, grooves were cut in the top surface of the stones to help shed any water that might have percolated down into the mound.  This outward lean of the stones would also help to distribute the weight away from the centre, minimizing the risk of collapse of the completed dome or vault.


The range of designs used by stone age artists is quite limited.  They consist of circles, dotes in circles, spirals, serpentiforms, arcs, radials (star shapes) zigzags, chevrons, lozenges (diamond shapes) parallel lines and offsets of comb devices.  All the shapes are drawn freehand and are abstract, but they may have held some meaning for the people who made them.  At Knowth, we find the greatest number of decorated stones, making up about half of all the stone age art in .  Many of the 127 stones in the kerb are elaborately patterned.  Kerbstone 15, which looks like a sundial, can be interpreted as a lunar calendar recording the phases of the moon.  Kerbstone 78, which is also supposed to refer to the phases of the moon, has a range of designs quite different from kerbstone 15.  Wavy lines and circles dominate the pattern, which flows over the whole surface of the stone.  At Newgrange, the entrance stone is covered in curvilinear pattern which emphasizes the size of the stone.  A groove at the top centre lines up with the entrance and roof box, left of the groove is a triple spiral and beyond this a wave pattern that connects back to the right hand end of the stone.

Kerbstone 52 on the opposite side of the mound has an even more varied range of patterns covering most of its surface.


(Most of the stones of Knowth and Newgrange) a hammer driven stone chisel was used to remove rough areas and to take away a thin layer of stone and improve its colour.  The lines and patterns on the stones are made by chip carving, cutting into the stone with a sharp flint or other hand stone tool or by picking or pecking with a stone chisel or point driven by a hammer.  On the surface of the stones, marks may have been smoothed out by hammering or rubbing with coarse textured stone.


Passage mounds seem to be much more than graves for revered ancestors.  The sheer scale of commitment from the stone age people who spend generations constructing them must have made them the most important endeavour in the lives of the community.  They were the largest structures in the country for thousands of years. In later generations, the mounds were thought to be the burial places of ancient kings.  The number of cremated remains inside the passage mound is relatively small in relation to the size of the community and the length of time for which the mounds were used. However, his might mean that only very special members of the community were buried there or that they were ritual or sacrificial burials.

There is a growing body of support for the theory that designs on the stones relate to movements of the sun, moon and the planets, which would be a way of keeping track of the seasons and important community events.  Kerbstones at Knowth in particular can be interpreted as recording lunar events and patterns,  The passages at Knowth received the light of the rising and setting sun at the equinoxes in March and October, which are important seasons for planting and harvesting in a farming community.  At Newgrange, the light of sunrise of the solstice (21 Dec), the shortest day of the year, may have celebrated the death of the old year and the birth of the new.  Other passage mounds also received the light of the sun or the moon at significant seasons and are the focus of ongoing research.

Rituals and ceremonies might have been held in procession around the mounds, stopping significant stones relevant to the season.  There are areas outside the east and west entrances at Knowth that are paved with Quartz and granite stones like those on the front of the mound at Newgrange.  These areas may have been the focus of ceremonies of they might have marked forbidden areas.  Whatever their function, these stones had to be transported by boat of raft from far away.


The ancient mounds have a long history and their construction speaks of an intelligent and inventive people, deeply motivated over generations to construct the largest structures of their time.  Newgrange represents the pinnacle of wood and stone technology and freehand abstract design.   Their art was the result of carefully planned and often repeated images, which took time and effort to construct and must have had deep significance for the artists.  It seems likely that the imags are more than random doodles, but we know so little about the lives and language of these early people that we can only guess at the meaning.


2. The Bronze Age

The Bronze Age (2000 BC – 500BC)

The changes that marked the arrival of a new culture in began in the north and east of the country.  Burials of cremated human remains under the cover of a new type of pottery, often in a stone – lined cist grave, mark the arrival of the beaker people, called after their distinctive pottery.  During the Early Bronze Age, stone age culture survived for some time in the south and west of the country, while Bronze Age society and technology were developing in the north, east and midlands.

The clear differences between bronze age and stone age art suggest that the people who developed metal technology in were of a different culture to the stone age people.  The Beaker people originated in mainland and probably came in search of copper and gold deposits.  There is certainly evidence of Irish gold and copper being traded into Europe and , which suggests links with the wider European community.

The nature of the decoration on bronze age objects is fundamentally different from stone age design; it is the result of combining basic geometric shapes with the most up to date technology of the time.  Metal was cast, hammered, twisted and cut to shape to create the range of forms preferred by the bronze age artists.  Forms and designs were created by mechanical means using a compass and straight edge rather than the freehand designs found in stone age art.

Bronze Age structures (architecture)

The design of tombs changed during the bronze age, which again suggests a new type of culture in Irish society.  In the greater part of the country, the dead were laid to rest in pits of cists.  These usually took the form of a small stone – lined box about a metre in length which contained an upturned pot with cremated remains underneath.  In the west of , wedge tombs, which were related to the court built in the stone age, were still being constructed.  None of these burial sites had the drama of the Stone age monuments. 

Ceremonial sites made of circular earthen banks of standing stones and hilltop forts are now regarded as bronze age structures that continued to have been little practiced except for a few examples of rock art found in counties , Kerry and Donegal.  Designs were very simple, mainly little hollow cup marks surrounded by circles, sometimes with radiating lines.  Little remains of bronze age human settlement.  Houses and fences seem to have been made of wood, which would have rotted away over the centuries, though evidence of a widespread population has survived through burial sites and finds of bronze age objects.


Mining for gold and copper was carried out at a number of locations in during the Bronze age.  Evidence of bronze age metalworking has been found at in Co. Cork, the Vale of Avoca in Co. Wicklow and in the Mourne mountains.  It was low technology mining.  Gold was probably found in nuggets or by panning alluvial deposits in rivers.  Copper was mined by roasting ore- bearing rock with fire and cracking it by throwing cold water on it.  The broken stone would then be dug out and the bits with the highest concentration of copper oxides would be selected and smelted over a charcoal fire.  The resulting molten copper was poured into stone moulds and cast into the shapes of axes, knives, sickles of whatever shape was required.  As technology improved, more sophisticated moulds were made and tin (imported from ) was mixed with the copper to make the alloy bronze.  Bronze is harder than copper and can hold a sharp edge for longer.

 The Beaker people

  • During the period up to 2000BC a style of pottery and metalwork developed in EU and found its way to through travel & trade. 
  • These people were referred to as the beaker people & they probably had a small number of skilled craftsmen with them.

Metal in

  • Raw material needed for the new skill of metalwork was readily available in the hills of .  Copper was found at mt, Gabriel in cork, silver in and alluvial gold found from the streams and rivers in the wicklow mountains.

Gold Ornaments – Tools – Pots

  • Bronze objects of high artistic quality have been found.  Mainly tools, shields, weapons & trumpets.  Pottery such as urns were used to contain remains of cremated dead.  Some artwork on stone is also dated to bronze age, mainly dots in circles.
  • Ornaments from bronze age have several features – abstract and the technique used by the worker in copper and bronze were also used by the goldsmith.  Nuggets of gold or metal were beaten into thin sheets.  Gold wire was made by cutting a narrow strip and twisting it, this was then used to cover leather to make necklaces, or for stitching 2 pieces together.  Wider, thicker pieces were twisted to make Torcs and earrings.

Bronze age decoration methods

  • Repousse – hammering designs on the reverse of  thin gold objects.
  • Incision – cutting a design into the front.
  • Twisting and flange twisting.

 Twisting & Flange Twisting –

  • The period from 1200 BC onwards was a very prolific time for gold ornaments and many gold hoards are dated to that period.  These include earrings, armlets, anklets and twisted ornaments called Torcs.

Gold Discs –

Probably the earliest examples of Irish gold ornaments are thin gold discs of various sizes.  These were decorated using the repousse method and usually have a cross encircled by concentric bands of chevrons (zigzags ) and dots.

Decorative Gold objects

Early bronze age objects were made from a single piece of gold, as the technology for joining pieces together with gold solder was not yet developed in .  Craftsmen hammered gold into thin flat sheets and cut it to shape.  Decoration was added simply incising (cutting) lines and patterns into the surface or by raising designs from the surface using the repoussetechnique (hammering form the reverse side).  Early bronze age gold objects were decorated with simple geometric patterns.  Circles, triangles, dots and straight lines were combined in various ways to make up the design repertoire of the first goldsmiths in .

The sun disc, from the early bronze age is circular in shape and about 11cm in diameter.  It is cut from a thin sheet of beaten gold.  The surface is patterned with ridges, chevrons and dots created by the repousse technique.  Two holes near the centre suggest that the discs may have been sewn onto a garment or belt.  The discs, which are from Tedavent, Co, Monaghan, have bands of dots, ridges and chevrons around the perimeter, with a cross shape in the centre.  Triangles are formed at the centre and the ends of the arms.  Triangles also appear between the arms of the cross shape against the surrounding circles.  These discs from Tedavent show some of the earliest examples of repousse work.  To apply a repousse design, gold sheet would have been laid face down on a firm surface – in more recent times, a leather sandbag or a bowl of mastic would have been used by goldsmiths.  A pattern could then be created on the surface using tracers (chisel like tools with a variety of shapes cut into the tip which were pressed or hammered into the surface) to produce a design.  With the work completed, the sheet of gold was turned face up to reveal the design projecting from the surface.  The work required careful craftsmanship, as a careless stroke could tear the thin gold sheet and the work would have to be started all over again.

The lunula is the most commonly found gold artifact form the early bronze age, and are dated back to after 1800BC.  A lunula was a neck collar probably worn as a status or magical item.  It was made of gold hammered into a thin sheet and cut into a crescent moon shape (hence the name) often with a plain surface but frequently decorated with incised lines.  A lunula from Ross in Westmeath has a pattern of lines, triangles and chevrons incised into its surface.  The pattern is concentrated in the narrow ends of the crescent.  Four patterned areas on each side have parallel lines with chevrons inside and separated by hatched lines.  There are rows of hatched triangles on each side of the parallel lines.   The main body of the lunula is plain and is surrounded by two rows of lines edged in triangles. 


A completely new form of ornament largely replaced sheet gold from about 1400BC. 

These new objects, called torcs, were made by twisting gold into a variety of decorative forms.  The ribbon torc was made from a flat strip of gold twisted into an even spiral shape also known as the bar torc.  A variation of the bar torc was made by hammering flanges out from the angles of square or triangular sectioned bars before twisting.  By varying the size of the flanges, the length of the bar and the degree of twist that was applied, craftsmen could make a variety of these flanged torcs.

Cathes and terminals also ranged in style from simple to elaborate.  Hammering the ends of the torc into the required shape created catches.  All torcs are made of one piece of gold and were made to fit the neck, waist and arms or to be worn as earrings.

The repousse technique continued in use at this time.  A pair of armbands from Derrinaboy, Co. Offaly, is boldly patterned in alternate smooth and rope patterned rows.

 The Broighter Collar:

The luxuriously ornamented Name, describe and discuss the two objects which are illustrated on the accompanying sheet,

referring to their form, function, materials, decoration and the techniques used in their



Discuss briefly the periods in which they were made.

Illustrate your answer.(torc), along with the Petrie Crown, is one of ’s greatest surviving masterpieces of Celtic metalwork art from the Irish Iron Age. It was named after the townland Broighter in

DRESS FASTENER – Bronze age Gold object

 The gold dress fastener  found in Clones, Co. Monaghan, dates from the 8th century B.C. and is decorated with many small circular shapes engraved into it.  It is pure gold and weighs over 1000 grammes it probably was used for ceremonial occasions.

It can be seen in the National and belongs to the Dowris phase of the Late Bronze Age at circa 700 B. C.  It has a length of 21.5 centimetres.

It functioned as a double button meant to slip through two holes in a garment such as a cloak.  The largeness and elaborate decoration on the surface probably meant it was only worn infrequently.

The connecting bow tapers from the centre toward each end, and the ends join the bell-shaped terminals asymmetrically.  Three small hatched triangles lie along the crest of the bow.  Three bands of parallel lines, separated by bands with diagonal hatching, run around the bases of the bow.  A hatched chevron design runs around the margins of this band of decoration, both above and below.

The exterior surfaces of the terminals are magnificently decorated with small pits surrounded by concentric engraved circles, scattered freehand and occasionally touching one another.

A triangular area between the end of the bow and the inner edge of the terminal has been left undecorated, and a similar interruption of decoration appears on the underside of the bow.

The rims of the terminals carry three ridges, both inside and outside.  A ring of hatched triangles rises from the highest inner ridge.

This type of fastener is an Irish adaptation of a northern European clothespin, in which two conjoined circular plates are furnished with a fastening pin; pins are absent in the Irish form.  Many of these fasteners (all except two are in gold) have been found in , where they have a wide distribution; such ornaments were also exported to .  Also known as a fibula or fibulae.


The art of the metalworker reached a very high standard of craftsmanship in the late bronze age, both in gold and bronze work.  Clay moulds were made of a number of parts were now used to cast more complicated objects.  Bronze was beaten into sheets and joined with rivets to create large cauldrons and other vessels.  Sophistication in design and workmanship is a hallmark of late bronze age metalwork.


The abstract art of the Bronze age was linked to the art of a large part of .  We are lucky to have exceptional examples of bronze age design in .  The gold and bronze objects are the most advanced technology of the time combined with sophisticated designs and a high level of craftsmanship, showing what could be achieved with simple geometric patterns.

Lizamore Crozier
The Lizamore Crozier was discovered in a blocked-up doorway at , in the early years of the 19th century. Like most medieval Irish croziers, it is formed of a wooden staff decorated with sheet bronze, spacer knobs, and surmounted by a cast copper-alloy crook. The crook is cast in a single piece and is hollow apart from a small reliquary which was inserted in the drop. Both sides of the crook are decorated with round studs of blue glass with red and white millefiori insets. Three animals with open jaws form the crest of the crozier, and these terminate in an animal head with blue glass eyes. An inscription at the base of the crook records the name of Neachtain, the craftsman who made the crozier, along with the Bishop of Lismore, who commissioned it.
Croziers such as this were symbols of power and authority. Many date to a period of political upheaval, when the was undergoing reform. This reform led to competition between the larger monasteries as they strove to become the new diocesan centres. Lavish church treasures such as croziers and other shrines were commissioned at this time, partly to reinforce the claims of particular monasticcentres and their secular patrons.

The Broighter Collar
The Broighter Collar is an example of La Tene style metalworking that shows clearly the design skill and extent of detail that La Tene culture represents. Dating from 1st Century BC, the Broighter Collar was found in Broighter, Co.Derry.

To describe the global origins of humans’ artistic achievement, upon which the succeeding history of art may be laid, is an encyclopedic enterprise. The Metropolitan Museum’s Timeline of Art History, covering the period roughly from 20,000 to 8000 B.C., provides a series of introductory essays about particular archaeological sites and artworks that illustrate some of the earliest endeavors in human creativity. The account of the origins of art is a very long one marked less by change than consistency. The first human artistic representations, markings with ground red ocher, seem to have occurred about 100,000 B.C. in African rock art. This chronology may be more an artifact of the limitations of archaeological evidence than a true picture of when humans first created art. However, with new technologies, research methods, and archaeological discoveries, we are able to view the history of human artistic achievement in a greater focus than ever before.

Art, as the product of human creativity and imagination, includes poetry, music, dance, and the material arts such as painting, sculpture, drawing, pottery, and bodily adornment. The objects and archaeological sites presented in the Museum’s Timeline of Art History for the time period 20,000–8000 B.C. illustrate diverse examples of prehistoric art from across the globe. All were created in the period before the invention of formal writing, and when human populations were migrating and expanding across the world. By 20,000 B.C., humans had settled on every continent except Antarctica. The earliest human occupation occurs in Africa, and it is there that we assume art to have originated. African rock art from the Apollo 11 and Wonderwerk Caves contain examples of geometric and animal representations engraved and painted on stone. In Europe, the record of Paleolithic art is beautifully illustrated with the magnificent painted caves of Lascaux and Chauvet, both in France. Scores of painted caves exist in western Europe, mostly in France and Spain, and hundreds of sculptures and engravings depicting humans, animals, and fantastic creatures have been found across Europe and Asia alike. Rock art in Australia represents the longest continuously practiced artistic tradition in the world. The site of Ubirr in northern Australia contains exceptional examples of Aboriginal rock art repainted for millennia beginning perhaps as early as 40,000 B.C. The earliest known rock art in Australia predates European painted caves by as much as 10,000 years.

In Egypt, millennia before the advent of powerful dynasties and wealth-laden tombs, early settlements are known from modest scatters of stone tools and animal bones at such sites as Wadi Kubbaniya. In western Asia after 8,000 B.C., the earliest known writing, monumental art, cities, and complex social systems emerged. Prior to these far-reaching developments of civilization, this area was inhabited by early hunters and farmers. Eynan/Ain Mallaha, a settlement in the Levant along the Mediterranean, was occupied around 10,000–8000 B.C. by a culture named Natufian. This group of settled hunters and gatherers created a rich artistic record of sculpture made from stone and bodily adornment made from shell and bone.

The earliest art of the continent of South Asia is less well documented than that of Europe and western Asia, and some of the extant examples come from painted and engraved cave sites such as Pachmari Hills in India. The caves depict the region’s fauna and hunting practices of the Mesolithic period. In Central and East Asia, a territory almost twice the size of North America, there are outstanding examples of early artistic achievements, such as the expertly and delicately carved female figurine sculpture from Mal’ta. The superbly preserved bone flutes from the site of Jiahu in China, while dated to slightly later than 8000 B.C., are still playable. The tradition of music making may be among the earliest forms of human artistic endeavor. Because many musical instruments were crafted from easily degradable materials like leather, wood, and sinew, they are often lost to archaeologists, but flutes made of bone dating to the Paleolithic period in Europe (ca. 35,000–10,000 B.C.) are richly documented.

North and South America are the most recent continents to be explored and occupied by humans, who likely arrived from Asia. Blackwater Draw in North America and Fell’s Cave in Patagonia, the southernmost area of South America, are two contemporaneous sites where elegant stone tools that helped sustain the hunters who occupied these regions have been found.

Whether the prehistoric artworks illustrated here constitute demonstrations of a unified artistic idiom shared by humankind or, alternatively, are unique to the environments, cultures, and individuals who created them is a question open for consideration. Nonetheless, each work or site superbly characterizes some of the earliest examples of humans’ creative and artistic capacity.

Laura Anne Tedesco
Independent Scholar

August 2007