Ireland and Imperators: Iron-Age Ireland and the Roman world next door.

While Britain, from AD 43 to the historic date of AD 410, had undergone a cultural and socio-political metamorphosis through its incorporation into the Roman world, the land of Hibernia (modern-day Ireland) remained outside the political sphere of the empire. However, this does not mean that Ireland and Rome remained complete aliens to each other – each being an unknown world to the other, as popular belief may tend to lean to. For this week, the focus will be on prehistoric Ireland up to, and including, its existence with the Roman Empire as it’s neighbour.

Homo Sapien Sapien activity appears in Ireland c. 31,000 BC, that may indicate hunter-gatherer excursions through butchered reindeer bones discovered at Castlepook Cave. Human settlements that show a more established human presence appear c. 11000 BC and continue to provide a rich trove of archaeological discoveries, particularly around the Neolithic period, 4000-2500 BC. Megalithic tombs and gold jewellery show the wealth Ireland offered. One of the most famous megalithic tombs uncovered as that of Newgrange. Newgrange appears to be astronomically aligned with a light-box that illuminated the burial chamber. The Bronze Age arrived in Ireland c. 2000 BC, with a range of Bronze artefacts, ranging from jewellery to weapons. The period also provided a new type of tomb – the wedge tomb – as well as new settlement patterns such as crannogs – timber structures built in shallow lakes for more protection.

The Iron Age began in 800 BC, and continued to survive when the majority of Europe transitioned from the Iron Age to the Roman Age. The end of Ireland’s Iron Age as been attributed to c. AD 400 when the region appears to appear within historical texts as a result of Christian pilgrimages and influence; one defining feature of the transition between Iron age and the next age is the emergence of written texts that often forms the line between pre-history and history. For Ireland, though the Iron Age period coexists next to the Roman period that would have been experienced through Roman Britain.

Ireland, much like many areas of Europe, were known to authors of the Classical world. Ptolemy, in his geographical work, refers to Ireland with references that create a very accurate map with features recognisable in the modern-day. This is especially the case with rivers and other natural markers. Tacitus also describes Ireland, going on to describe Ireland as smaller than Britain, but with a similar climate and peoples. This is not too surprising, as Tacitus is writing when Britain has already been incorporated into the Roman empire, and had a special investment in Britain; Tacitus’ father in law, Agricola, was governor or Britain, campaigned into Scotland, and who suggested that a single legion could conquer and hold Ireland. Indeed, this contributed to a theory by Richard Warner, who argued that a Roman force invaded Ireland during the 1st century AD. The theory used the accurate descriptions of Ptolemy, Tacitus referencing an exiled Irish prince appealing to Agricola for aid, and a range of classical artefacts discovered in Ireland, dating to 1st or second century AD. While the theory remains unproven, debates have sprung up from finds found at Drumanagh fort. The finds include coinage of Titus, Trajan, and Hadrian, as well as brooches, and while these finds were from illegal metal detecting with no formal excavation carried out at the site, the defensive nature and position of the fort, along with the finds dating to the 1st and second century have lent support to Warner’s theory. However, Warner’s claims have been countered by Barry Raftery who argued the fort was not likely a Roman fort, but instead a trading station, populated by a mix of Irish, Roman-British, and Roman-Gallic peoples.

What Raftery argues for is the existence of an established and healthy trade relationship between the Roman world and Ireland. The does appear very much the case. Coinage, Samian and Arretine pottery are amongst the most numerous finds found in Ireland. In addition, high status items that possibly served as ritualistic deposits have been found in some of Ireland’s megalithic structures. One such site is Newgrange, in which gold coins silver rings, and brooches were buried in the passage tomb. This could be either native people using imported wares and fashions in their normal lives – the ritual depositions could be existing practises but with more exotic items that increased the status of the ritual – or visiting peoples such as traders or migrants, bringing with them new forms of luxury objects. Or a mixture of both.

What these items do show though, is that there was some form of relationship between Ireland and the Roma world. Even though Rome does not feature in Ireland’s history in an official capacity, this did not prevent the two from interacting and Ireland enjoying new and exotic things that showed the benefits of engaging with the Roman world – it is also quite telling that Ireland’s Patron saint, St. Patrick, was originally from Roman Britain.

I hope you enjoyed this week’s letter and keen to find out what next week has for the letter “J”!

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