2. Stone Identification

Bracers are not usually suitable candidates for thin-sectioning, as they are often very fine artefacts, so the X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF) method, which is non-destructive, is particularly useful. Portable XRF analysis and non-invasive petrography were employed to analyse all available bracers from England, Scotland and Wales, and also eight of the Irish bracers in UK museums were examined in this way. Some other Irish bracers had been ascribed preliminary identifications by various geologists at the time of compilation of Harbison's volume (Harbison 1976, 6 and appendix C), while a sample of 31 bracers studied at Dublin in 2006 were provisionally identified by hand lens by one of the authors (FR, see Appendix).

Colour was clearly of importance and particular varieties of stone seem to have been selected for making bracers with hue in mind. Nearly all the mainland United Kingdom bracers are in shades of blue-grey or green-grey. We have established that two main varieties of stone were used, one of them a Neolithic axe material, the well-known Langdale rock from Cumbria (Group VI). The other material seems to have been something special, currently identified as an amphibolite with some resemblance to nephrite, but its exact source has not yet been determined. By contrast, red jasper, in shades reminiscent of sealing wax, was more important to the makers of the Irish bracers (Fig. 1), while stone that was near black or rather neutral shades of brown or grey was chosen for others (Fig. 2). No blue-green bracers were seen in Dublin, though it may be noted here that an unlocated, 4-holed plaque of green stone, Harbison's no. 2 (1976, 6 and 31, pl. 1, 2) was not considered by either of the present writers to be a bracer. It appears to be made of jadeite, which just possibly came from New Zealand.

Figure 2

Figure 2: Grey and brown bracers: top from Ireland (ID95), centre from County Antrim (ID96), lower from Northern Ireland (ID97), all National Museums of Scotland. Photographs by David Bukach.

Our survey of UK bracers has identified only three that are red or reddish in colour, all of the flat, 2-holed variety. Two of these were made from pinkish-red Old Red Sandstone that was local to their findspots. One, from Dornoch, Sutherland (Ashmore 1989), was associated with a Low Carinated Beaker and has a radiocarbon date of 2410-2200 at 1σ (GrA-26515, 3850 ± 40, Needham 2005, 185 and fig. 5, 13). The other Old Red Sandstone example is from beneath a cairn at Carneddau, Powys, and was found in a hearth that provided a range of somewhat later radiocarbon dates (Gibson 1993, 9). The discovery of both a red and a black bracer with the Amesbury Archer is exceptional in mainland UK (Fitzpatrick 2003; Roe in prep), and again the date range of 2460-2310 at 1σ (3895 ±32: OxA-13541) is relatively early. The source of the black Amesbury Archer bracer has been difficult to identify, but the red one is thought to have been made from a Cambrian shale found in Pembrokeshire. However, nearly all the red Irish examples are of jasper. There are also differences in shape, since both the Amesbury Archer bracers have long sides that are flattened, while the Irish jasper examples are more rounded in shape. However, in both cases it seems to have been the idea of red and also of black that was important. It is in Germany that red and black bracers are best known (Sangmeister 1974) but we do not as yet have much information concerning preferred colour schemes elsewhere in Europe. The red Irish bracers account for some 46.5% of the ones newly studied, and jasper must rate as a very special raw material. The two relatively early radiocarbon dates for the Dornoch and Boscombe Down red bracers provide a suggestion that some at least of the jasper bracers could also belong towards the beginning of the Irish Beaker sequence.

The varieties of stone selected to make Irish bracers divide into three groups, of which the red jasper items discussed above form the first group. There would have been no difficulty in obtaining suitable material for these, since jasper occurs in Ireland in a number of places, including localities in Co. Cavan (Red Hills), Co. Dublin (Portrane), Co. Galway, Co. Tyrone and Co. Waterford. It is often found in association with Palaeozoic pillow lavas, as in Co. Tyrone (Mitchell 2004, 265). Secondly, the nearest approximation to black bracers consists of those made of porcellanite from Tievebulliagh, Co. Antrim (Group IX; Cooney and Mandal 1998, 58). Only two such bracers were seen in Dublin, where their identification was confirmed by Stephen Mandal, and a third was identified from the Hunterian Museum, Glasgow (Fig. 3). There is at least one more of these bracers in the Ulster Museum, Belfast (Gabriel Cooney, pers. comm.), and there may well be others here among the many finds from Antrim. So, as with the use of Group VI Langdale stone in England and Scotland, a much-used Neolithic stone axe material was chosen to make some of the Irish bracers. A third group of Irish bracers was made from fine-grained siltstones, mudstones and shales (Fig. 2). Fine-grained sedimentary rocks were used to make some of the Irish axes (Cooney and Mandal 1998, 81) and it is suggested that some of these materials may correspond with the fine-grained rocks chosen to make bracers in shades of grey and brown. Slightly different were the two items from Corran (Harbison 1976, nos 14 and 16), which are both made from near white stone, apparently a non-calcareous siltstone.

Figure 3

Figure 3: Porcellanite bracer: from County Antrim (ID99 Hunterian Museum, Glasgow). Photograph by David Bukach.

The arrival of bracers in Ireland, along with other aspects of the Beaker phenomenon, is a clear indication of continental connections and the most likely interpretation would seem to be one of links with the Atlantic coastline of Europe. It also seems that there would have been sea currents that would have helped to transport boats to the coast of Ireland (Barry Cunliffe, pers. comm.). An Iberian origin for Beakers seems probable (e.g. Cunliffe 2001, 228; Case 2004a), while Humphrey Case has suggested that the bracers may be another Iberian innovation (2004b, 207; see also Cunliffe 2001, 219). Beaker pottery is unevenly spread across Europe (Vander Linden 2006, fig. 1), and the French distribution is no exception, but some of the dispersion must have been northwards up the Atlantic coast, following routes that were already traditional (Cunliffe 2001, 197). In fact during the centuries preceding the Beaker dispersion, megalithic tombs had spread along the same parts of the Atlantic coastline. These distributions are now echoed by the findings from DNA analysis (Oppenheimer 2006). There are Beakers from the centre west of France and also bracers from the same area, but there is a greater concentration of both Beaker pottery and 2-holed bracers in Brittany, where only one 4-holed bracer has been recorded to date, though made, as it happens, from red sandstone (Briard and Mohen 1974, 49). Thus the morphology of the Breton bracers corresponds well to that of the Irish ones. Stuart Needham has drawn attention to similarities between characteristic Breton Beakers and one from Dalkey Island, Co. Dublin (2005, 179). More compelling, perhaps, is the presence of gold lunulae in Brittany (Eogan 1994, 36 and fig. 13), since the decoration on these is thought to relate to that on Beaker pottery (Taylor 1970, 57 and pl. X1). Many of the Breton bracers have been found in megalithic tombs, which have themselves been found to have similarities with Irish tombs (Sheridan 1986). The dating of such tombs has always been problematical, but deposits were probably still being made in some Irish tombs during the Early Bronze Age, as elsewhere, and there is at least one Irish example of a probable bracer (not traced) from a court cairn, at Ballywholan, Co. Down, where the fact that the stone object is described as being 'pompeian red in colour' lends weight to the likelihood that it was indeed a bracer (Kelly 1985).


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