Bell Beaker People

3000 BCE--Earliest pottery found in Ulster (Lyles Hill pottery) is similar to that found in northern Britain, suggesting that some of the earliest Neolithic colonists came from northern Britain.  In 1961 Humphrey Case defined Western Neolithic ware pottery as being round-based bowls, normally thin-walled, hard, generally dark-brown, and with a shouldered profile. Four substyles were recognized in Ireland: Dunmurry style; Ballymarlagh style, Limerick style, and the Lyles Hill style. The last mentioned was used by Isobel Smith in 1974 to help define a widespread class of early Neolithic pottery that she called the Grimston–Lyles Hill series; these vessels are now more commonly known as carinated bowls.

2800 BCE--Stonehenge

There was a henge at the Stonehenge site before the Bronze Age. It was really nothing more than a ditch and bank enclosing a open space. The stone now called the Heel Stone lay outside the ditch. There may at some point have been a circle of wood or a hut inside the enclosure; there certainly was a tradition of wooden henges in the area. Inside the henge a ring of 56 holes were dug, called today "Aubrey Holes" after a 17th century "discoverer" of the site. These holes were filled with cremation materials.

2500 BCE-300 BCE-- Copper and Bronze Age

Throughout the early Bronze Age, Ireland had a flourishing metal industry. Bronze, copper, and gold objects were exported widely to Britain and the Continent. More Bronze Age gold hoards have been discovered in Ireland than anywhere else in Europe. The earliest metal tools found in Ireland were made of copper and were concentrated in Munster, where early copper mines have been noted. The prehistoric mines on the slopes of Mount Gabriel in Co. Cork consist of some 25 mineshafts. Some of the more prolific copper items that have been found from the early Bronze age include axes, daggers and halberds.

As the human residents of Ireland developed their skills, their influence on the environment increased dramatically. The arrival of the Bronze Age in Ireland had no great effect on the island's natural history since cutting implements made of bronze, while superior to stone, still lacked the effectiveness of iron and steel.  However, two crucial and related trends combined to increase the human impact on the environment: the widespread use of iron implements, and the introduction of more advanced methods of agriculture, including animal-drawn ploughs and ploughshares.

2500 BCE--Bell-Beaker culture entered Britain.

Bell Beaker Pottery 


About 2500 BC an influx of migrants settled in Britain. These newcomers have been called the Beaker People because of the shape of the pottery vessels which are so often found in their round barrow graves. The stocky newcomers, although few at first, seem to have quickly gotten the upper hand on their Neolithic landlords, becoming a sort of nouveau aristocracy.

The Beaker folk were farmers and archers, wearing stone wrist guards to protect their arms from the sting of the bowstring. They were also the first metal smiths in Britain, working first in copper and gold, and later in the bronze which has given its name to this era.  There was a changeover during this period to round houses, echoed in the mushroom-like growth of stone circles and round barrow mounds. We can guess that huts had a low stone wall for a base which was used to brace wooden poles and rafters. On top of this would have been a roof of thatch, turf, or hides.  They made their own pottery, and eventually the first woven garments in Britain .They also seem to have introduced the first known alcoholic drink into Britain, a form of honey-based mead. The islands have never been the same since.

The Beaker Folk introduced a pastoral pattern to the agricultural lifestyle of Neolithic times. As population grew, more marginal land was brought into cultivation, and was farmed successfully for hundreds of years, until climate changes forced its abandonment. The Beaker Folk were a patriarchal society, and it is during the Bronze Age that the individual warrior-chief or king gained importance, contrasting with the community orientation of the Neolithic times.

Round barrows or cists were often clustered in groups which suggest family cemeteries, sometimes very close to earlier Neolithic henges and monuments, as if taking advantage of sites already felt to be sacred. The barrow graves were generally filled with grave goods, indicating the importance of the dead person and a belief in some kind of afterlife. Some of the goods included in barrows were: pottery jars, golden buckles, bronze daggers, cups, necklaces, and sceptres in various stones and precious materials.


Both men and women were accorded barrow burials, meaning that cremation was no longer in practice. A curious fact was noted in studying these Bronze Age burials; in many cases the corpses were carefully laid with the head to the south, men facing east, women facing west. We can only guess that this was to allow the corpse to see the sun at a particular time of day. Many of the best barrow burials found today are the Iron Age or even Saxon/Norse type barrows rather than Bronze Age.

Other monuments to be mentioned around the Beaker-using period is that of Stone Circles. Of the more than 200 stone circles almost 100 are concentrated in the southwestern counties of Cork and Kerry, many of them consisting of no more than five stones. Somewhat unexpected in the southwest of Ireland are four stone groupings known as "Four Posters", which find their closest counterpart in northern England and Scotland. Another great concentration of stone circles is found in central and southwestern Ulster in the north of Ireland, often consisting of more stones than found in the southwest of Ireland.  Although circles may have been erected as early as 3400 BC, the major circle building era was during the Bronze Age. This suggests that The Beaker Folk and their descendants took over or adopted many of the beliefs and customs of the earlier Neolithic inhabitants.

2200 BCE--The Bell-Beaker people added a circle of stones around the existing site creating the now famous Stonehenge.  Perhaps to impress their superiority on the local population, they began the process of building a double ring of stones inside the henge. These "blue stones" were transported all the way from southern Wales, a distance of several hundred miles. Why go to Wales when there were stones as close as twenty miles to the north on the Marlborough Downs?

It seems that the Beaker People had an established trade route from Wessex to Ireland in their search for copper and gold, so southern Wales was on their way home. Also, there may have been friction between the Beaker People and the natives of Marlborough Downs which prevented them from accessing the nearer stones.  Transporting the stones was an enormously impressive achievement. Over 80 of these blue stones, most weighing over four tons, were painstakingly carried to Salisbury Plain by boat and sledge, a process that took over a hundred years to complete. In later years the transport of these stones was attributed to magic, even the wizard Merlin was supposed to have taken part.

Impressive it may have been, but the stones were barely in position before they were torn down. They may have been hauled off to another building site. Speculation among archaeologists is that there was a shift in the power balance of the area, and the Beaker People were ousted by a local revolt. A new circle was erected, this time using more easily obtainable "sarsen" stones from Marlborough Downs, to form an inner horseshoe surrounded by a circle. The interesting thing to note is that the linteled horseshoe was built using mortise and tenon joints, pegs and holes, as would be expected of people skilled in woodworking. This is the circle that is so famous today. It is really the third phase of building, incorporating the other two, for the "blue stones" were brought back from exile and re-erected around the inner horseshoe.

Is it an astronomical observatory? Probably not, though there are certainly solar and lunar alignments to be found in the final arrangement of stones. Was it a Druid temple, complete with sacrifices and blood curdling ceremonies? Sorry, no. The Druids were Celtic priests, not due for another 1500 years. It was probably a multipurpose ceremonial center, like other early circles, relating to fertility, death, and rebirth. There are remains of quite a few cremations and other burials nearby and inside the circle. It was obviously an important site in the religious observances of the Bronze Age culture, but precisely what those observances were, it isn't possible to say. In other words, we don't know, but half the fun of Stonehenge is the speculation.

One example from Scotland was found to have traces of mead in it.

2150 BCE--The "Bell-Beaker" culture began to make an appearance in Ireland. Slowly the culture of these bronze-working settlers merged with that of the Neolithic Irish (Nemedians) and gave birth to the Irish Bronze Age.  Ireland's population increased during the Bronze Age, which lends the first evidence of weapons intended for use on humans.  Therefore, it makes sense that this would have been a period of political division and the establishment of a hierarchy.

2,000-1500 BCE--Wedge tombs (about 400) are considered to be built mainly during this period, and Bell-Beaker pottery is often associated with them. Similar tombs, also associated with Beaker finds, are common in the French region of Brittany, and the origin of the Irish series seems connected to this region. Wedge tombs are found scattered throughout northern Ireland, with large concentrations in the west, particularly around County Clare, northern Connaught, and County Cork. For the most part Wedge tombs have long, rectangular burial chambers usually roofed with large stones, and placed in a long, wedge-shaped mound.

Dated to 1100 BC

1260-930 BCE--The Ring Fort at Mooghaun South in County Clare shows evidence for settlement during the Late Bronze Age after its construction. Other evidence of ring forts seem to suggest a Late Bronze Age start for construction of this type, although a wide range of later dates have also been suggested.

1200 BCE--Late Bronze Age brings to Ireland a whole new range of bronze implements and weapons, such as socketed axe-heads and swords. A common type of dwelling in use at this time is said to be crannóg, an artificial island, palisaded on all sides, constructed along the shallows of a lake. Crannogs are most prolific in Scotland.

Towards the end of the Bronze Age the climate changed drastically. According to tree ring evidence, a major volcanic eruption in Iceland may have caused a significant temperature drop in just one year. At this time the settlements on Dartmoor were abandoned, for example, and peat started to form in many places over what were once farms, houses, and their field systems. It seems likely that warfare and banditry erupted as the starving survivors fought over land that could no longer support them.

Holland, C. H. A Geology of Ireland Passim

The Ireland Story Passim  Visited: 9/30/04