The past is unpredictable. This iron spearhead, found in the River Inny at Lackan in Co. Westmeath, is of a kind familiar enough from the Ireland of AD 500. Andy Halpin of the National Museum says that it ‘would not be out of place in the early-mediaeval period…When you think of the Iron Age legends of Cúchulainn, this is the type of weapon that people think of them carrying’. The problem is that recent radiocarbon dating of the remains of its wooden shaft suggests that this spear may be more than 1,200 years older than that. If this is so, it explodes a myth about how the Iron Age came to Ireland.
The long-held belief was that the use of iron in Ireland was a result of the invasion of the Celts. Greek writers refer to the existence of ‘Keltoi’ in central Europe in the sixth century BC. It seemed logical that the ‘sudden’ appearance of iron in Ireland must be evidence of the arrival of these Celts. Conversely, if there was no late and sudden arrival of iron, the idea of a Celtic invasion looks highly dubious.
No one doubts that the influence of these central Europeans is evident in some Irish artefacts from the third century BC onwards. There are, however, no Irish metal artefacts, never mind ones with continental influence, between 600 and 300 BC. Iron corrodes and is very hard to date.
So far, Iron Age iron objects found in Ireland have been pretty crude and relatively late, dating no earlier than 300 BC. The Lackan spearhead, though, is certainly not crude: it is elegantly made. It is almost freakishly well-preserved: it would be unusual to find a weapon from the Middle Ages in such good condition. It is not an obvious import. And it seems to be very, very old. The radiocarbon tests date the ash shaft somewhere between 811 and 673 BC. Halpin urges caution, but there is no reason why this date has to be regarded as wrong.
It is the combination of this early date and its superb quality that makes this spear so startling. ‘We are beginning’, says Halpin, ‘to get other evidence for ironworking technology at an earlier date than we thought. The idea that ironworking was happening here in maybe 600 or 700 BC would not really be disputed any more. But the idea that something as fine as this was being produced at that period suggests not only that iron was being worked here, but also that it was being worked by very competent smiths much earlier than we think’.
Those smiths were not invading ‘Celts’. They may well have been part of the same culture that was producing the dazzling gold and bronze objects we have already seen.