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The Annual Conference based in Dublin, Ireland, focused on the rich history of metals and metalworking in Ireland, from the earliest times to the more recent past.

Metals and Metalworking in Ireland

HMS Annual Conference 2007

14th–16th September

Dublin, Ireland
Organised by Justine Bayley

This conference was run in conjunction with the Mining Heritage Trust of Ireland and was based in the National Museum in Dublin, by kind invitation of its Director, Dr Patrick Wallace. There were visits guided by four of the Museum’s curators to both the Archaeological collections at Kildare Street and the Decorative Arts and History collections at Collins Barracks. In addition to the two half-day lecture sessions at Collins Barracks with a wide range of papers on all aspects of metals and metalworking in Ireland, from the earliest times to the more recent past. On the Friday and Monday there were optional visits to historic mining sites near Dublin, organised by the Mining Heritage Trust of Ireland.

Photo Gallery


This year’s annual HMS conference was held jointly with the Mining Heritage Trust of Ireland from the 14th to 16th of September in Dublin. It was attended by over 60 members and guests. Excellent accommodation and evening meals were provided in the majestic setting of Trinity College, home of the Book of Kells. The conference was mostly based at the National Museum in Dublin, by kind invitation from its director Dr Patrick Wallace.

On Friday morning some delegates assembled at Trinity College for the first of two field trips, to the Ballycorus leadworks, lead by Rob Goodbody and Mathew Parkes. After initial confusion over car sharing we finally arrived at the Ballycorus smelter which operated between the 19th and early 20th century. The site included a reverberatory and refining furnace, slag hearths, a blast engine, stamps and a mill pond. Originally ore from Luganure (Co Wicklow), Caime (Co Wexford) and Ballycorus (Co Dublin) was used, but when these sources were depleted the works continued by importing ore from the Isle of Man. The smelter at Ballycorus manufactured shot and litharge as well as lead piping and sheets used in the Dublin construction industry. Many of the buildings have now been converted for modern industrial use; some buildings were left derelict while some have disappeared altogether.

Further up the hill was the shot manufactory building, now a private residence. The shot tower was demolished some years ago but a free-standing granite chimney still survives revealing the location of the smelter. The melted lead formed spheres during free fall through the 45m (150ft) vat of water. To create the vertical drop required the shot tower was located above an abandoned mine shaft, with the extra height gained by adding the tower above. The spheres once collected were sorted, polished, graded and bagged in the riddle building prior to being sold.

The final stop of the fieldtrip was the hill top landmark chimney which is 26m tall and 235m above sea level. With glorious views over Dublin Mountains and Dublin itself, this chimney is a remnant of the 19th century lead industry. The chimney was originally even taller and would have had a safety rail on the external spiral granite staircase. Both the chimney and the 2m high flue which stretches for almost a mile were constructed in 1836, after complaints that the fumes from the smelting works at Ballycorus were affecting local livestock. As well as disposing of the fumes, the long length of the flue meant that the hot gases were able to cool leaving the valuable lead deposited on the interior brickwork; this was recovered using the doors at regular intervals along the flue.

We then made our way down the hill and back into Dublin for registration. After which we made our way to the National Museum in Kildare Street where the director, Dr Patrick Wallace warmly welcomed us. He provided a excellent overview of the metal artefacts and evidence for metalworking in the National Museum. He explained how the museum would like to contribute to the larger picture of metalworking in Europe. He also shared his hopes that the future will bring less emphasis on purely stylistic and typological studies and more on scientific research so that we can gain a more detailed understanding of ancient metalworking technology. After this introduction conversations continued over excellent wine, served by the extremely friendly museum staff.

The following morning we re-assembled at the National Museum for our visits to the various collections. We started with the Viking gallery with Raghnall Ó Floin and Justine Bayley on hand to answer any questions. The Viking metalwork on display is particularly fine quality, with excellent examples of Viking iron work including pattern-welded swords, along with nonferrous metal artefacts and the evidence for non-ferrous metal working from the site. Mary Cahill enthusiastically introduced us to the museums fantastic collection of Bronze Age gold work, one of the largest and most important collections in Western Europe. She explained how examination of the various different items revealed a variety of methods of construction, often using hammered thin sheets of gold with stamped, twisted and gold wire filigree decoration. The tour of the treasury was led by Raghnall Ó Floin, who explained that this gallery was inspired by the great church treasuries of medieval Europe and contained outstanding religious and secular metal work, dating from Pagan Celtic Ireland to the end of the Middle Ages, and beyond. The Iron Age metalwork displays outstanding skill in the production of bronze and gold metal artefacts, but during the Early Christian period new styles and techniques were added to the smith’s repertoire. Highlights of this tour included the Tara Brooch, the Ardagh Chalice, the Moylough Belt Shrine and the Tully Lough cross.

After lunch we made our way to Collins Barracks (also part of the National Museum of Dublin) for the first lecture session of the weekend. The first paper on Ireland’s metal deposits was presented by Mathew Parkes. He provided a very informative introduction to the geology of Ireland, with a brief overview of the main events in geological history and their associated metal and other economic deposits. In addition, he revealed how the Mining Heritage Trust of Ireland ( had been trying to raise awareness of the importance of Ireland’s mining history.

Mary Cahill then gave a paper entitled cuirass to gorget. During our tour of the Bronze Age gold collection we were shown many examples of these impressive large gold collars, or ‘gorgets’. The lack of any development between the surviving examples might suggest that the gold smiths were unimaginative but Mary suggested that the appearance, style and decoration may actually relate to links between the ‘Cuirass’ a sheet bronze body armour found in mainland Europe.

Angela Wallace presented a paper on her examination of the organisation of iron production from three Irish sites. Excavations at Tonybaun revealed an Iron Age site with evidence for small scale smelting and smithing activity, with a possible stone-lined furnace and smithing hearths. Two early medieval sites Lowpark and Ratoath also revealed evidence for iron production and working. Lowpark had evidence for large scale production in four distinct areas and 1.3 tonnes of ironworking waste, while the evidence at Ratoath suggested it was primarily a smithing site.

After a quick break we returned to the lecture session. Next up was Tim Young who provided us with a new look at early Irish iron working. The large number of road development projects has produced an enormous amount of new iron production and working sites. Several Iron Age smelting sites have been discovered along with evidence for slag pit furnaces. This furnace type appears to continue in use as late as the 18th century AD, although other furnace types may have been in use during the Middle Ages and a possible slag tapping furnace was identified dating to the 9th-10th century AD.

The final paper of this session was given by Justine Bayley on the preliminary results from the analysis of the large quantities of non-ferrous metalworking evidence from Viking Dublin. The analysis has revealed evidence for copper-alloy casting and smithing, brazing, as well as precious metal refining and working. During excavations a variety of crucibles, both locally made and imported, and other metalworking tools were identified, this included an iron file which analysis determined had been used on both brasses and silver objects.

After dinner we reconvened at the Swift lecture theatre at Trinity College for a series of short contributions from members. Susan La Niece spoke about recent analysis of Bronze Age gold lock rings which was carried out to determine how they were constructed. This revealed that most were hollow but some had nonmetallic cores, such as bees wax. Brian Dolan then told us about his research into the archaeology of early medieval Irish iron working that he is just about to embark on for his PhD, where he hopes to explore the social and technological context of iron working in Ireland. The results from experimental attempts to recreate Irish Bronze Age technology, using a variety or furnaces types and moulds to cast copper alloys were then shared by Cordula Hansen and her group ( Neil Fairburn then gave his view on the presence of bowl furnaces in Ireland, he believes that the term bowl furnace has been overused and that the iron slag should be examined more closely as the evidence suggests that other furnaces were in use in Ireland. After which delegates were treated to a double act with Peter Claughton and Janis Heward who shared their recent research and survey results into the location and use of potash kilns used to create white coal for lead smelting. Finally David Dungworth presented a short paper on the National slag collection which needs to be re-examined and organised. After all these contributions many archaeometallurgical discussions continued over a few pints, mostly Guinness, in a local pub.

Sunday morning everyone made their way to Collins Barracks for the second set of presentations. Rob Goodbody started us off with a detailed history of two lead mines Ballycorus in County Dublin and Glendalough in County Wicklow. He explained to us how mining exploration had started in the 19th century and then how they were closed in the late 19th century, followed by a detailed explanation of the later phases of mining in the Glendalough area in the early 20th century. These two mines were linked by common ownership, and by the fact that the ore from both sites was being transported and used at the smelting and lead works at Ballycorus, visited during the Friday fieldtrip.

Effie Photo-Jones next gave an overview of her results from the study of metallurgical features and iron working waste products from excavations in Ireland. In her presentation she placed an emphasis on the study of features which have often been neglected and proposed a new method of soil analysis, which may reveal more about the site than technological studies of slag alone.

Anthony Read then presented a paper on the investigation and conservation of the Wollaston AngloSaxon helmet which was found in a rich burial at Wollaston near Wellingborough. This helmet is only one of four found in England, other examples include those from Sutton Hoo and Coppergate. Extensive investigation work was carried out using CT scans and X-radiography which revealed a very plain helmet, possibly designed purely for fighting.

After a short break we returned to the lecture theatre for more presentations. Geraldine Carville provided us with an historical account of the iron works and operations based in County Kildare and Laois, with particular reference to those at Monasterevin, Mount Meelick and Mountrath. Some of the iron from these iron works supplied the rebels with weapons during the time of civil unrest in the 1790s and possibly through the Napoleonic War.

Neil Fairburn then provided us with an insight into the copper smelting evidence from Irish sites. There have been many theories as to why there is an absence of copper smelting slag in Ireland (or even Britain) before the Industrial Revolution. His recent examination of what was originally identified as iron-working slag from a number of sites around Ireland has now turned up five copper smelting sites, which may suggest that copper slag is not being recognised due to its similar appearance to iron working slag.

The last presentation of the weekend was by Griffin Murray who provided us with an argument on the status of goldsmiths in early medieval Ireland. Many of the most sophisticated and accomplished precious metalwork was produced for the Church. The craftsmen who made these pieces have often been thought to be illiterate but the evidence such as inscriptions including name of the smith, suggests that the master craftsmen most likely both designed and made the pieces, and was most likely linked in some way to the church.

After a superb lunch at the Barracks we were then divided into groups to visit particular galleries and collections in the Museum. To get to the Viking period ironwork and metalworking finds we had to go behind the scenes, where Justine Bayley had laid out an assemblage of the metalworking finds, which included crucibles, moulds and trail pieces. Jennifer Mulrooney on the other hand provided us with an overview of the X-radiograph survey of the Viking Dublin ironwork she has been carrying out. Many of the X-radiographs and objects were available for us to look at and Jennifer shared with us some of her new discoveries and thoughts.

The conference was a huge success mostly due to the efforts of organiser Justine Bayley. Big thanks should also go to Patrick Wallace and all the staff at the National Museum of Dublin who made our stay very welcoming, the staff at Trinity College, and also to Rob Goodbody and Mathew Parkes who organised and ran the two fieldtrips. It was certainly one of the best conferences that I have attended, with a good mix of fieldtrips, tours, presentations and socialising.

Written by Eleanor Blakelock for The HMS Newsletter 67
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