A Remote Analogy?: From Central Australian Tjurunga to Irish Early Bronze Age Axes
Dickins, Jane, Antiquity
Our interpretation of Bronze Age metalwork is based, for the most part, on commonsense ideas of what is functional and what is not, which items were intended to be recovered, which were gifts to other worlds. A more considered source of analogy than our limited experience is available at a certain distance. Remote in terms of measured miles, the analogy is nevertheless effective in expanding current definitions of how ritual is expressed through material culture.
It is fun to find the same pattern on Aranda tjurunga and an Irish grave slab. . . . The value of such ethnographic comparisons is just to show the funny kinds of meanings or purposes that may be attached to the queerer kinds of archaeological data
(CHILDE 1958: 4)
Comparing sacred tjurunga from Central Australia to material culture from Early Bronze Age Ireland is not an original idea. Childe goes on to argue that such comparisons will be a waste of time if one expects the analogy to 'explain the motives and values' of prehistoric peoples (1958: 4). The primary use of ethnographic analogy, as Childe recognizes in the quoted remark, is simple, to 'broaden the horizons of the interpreter' (Ucko 1969: 262).
Patterning in the deposition of early metal axes from Bronze Age Ireland is certainly among the 'queerer kinds' of archaeological data, and currently something of an enigma. Irish data conflicts with the current frameworks for interpreting the deposition of early metal in Bronze Age Europe. This paper addresses the enigma by expanding the current definition of what constitutes ritual behaviour in the archaeological record through the application of an unusual analogy. Gordon Childe saw the potential of Australian tjurunga as an analogy for certain aspects of the material record in Ireland almost half a century ago. This paper explores that potential.
Axes in Early Bronze Age Ireland
Axes are the principle metal products of Early Bronze Age (EBA) Ireland. Over 2100 early metal axes have survived down to the present clay, compared to only 142 daggers, 150 halberds and a handful of assorted small tools and bronze ornaments. Yet despite the relatively high numbers of axes, their role, and the social contexts underlying their production and deposition, remain a mystery. We have some dates from sites associated with early mining, the earliest being from Ross Island, Co. Kerry, with dates c. 2400-2000 BC, the oldest working copper mine in northwest Europe (O'Brien 1995: 24). Smelting sites have been discovered adjacent to the Bronze Age workings at Ross Island, but there is no evidence for the casting and production of axes or other metal objects.
The material components and debris associated with the casting and production of axes - moulds, crucibles, axe blanks and the finished products themselves - are not found in association with mining sites, or in other datable contexts such as settlements, burials, henges and monuments. The only four exceptions to this rule, representing a tiny fraction of the total output of EBA axes, are each of an axe found in association with a burial mound of some kind, although not in association with the burial itself or with any grave goods. It seems likely that in each of these cases the axes were secondary deposits: they may belong to a tradition of non-grave mound deposition (O'Brien et al. 1990: 16) better documented in Britain (Needham 1988: 241-3).
The contents of graves and axe deposits can be described as mutually exclusive (O'Flaherty 1992). Early metal axes, and the material remains associated with their production, are found deposited away from other sites and activities associated with human occupation; consistently deposited in isolation from other social activities. Axes share this isolated deposition with certain other classes of early metal artefacts, notably the gold crescentic collars - lunulae.
The lack of 'meaningful' contextual data for EBA axes, and the absence of a reliable chronological framework has led many archaeologists to regard them as effectively 'without context', at best 'negative evidence'. …