second century AD
The Vikings did not wear horned helmets. The Iron Age Irish did wear head-dresses with what look like horns on them. There are two outstanding examples, the ‘Cork horns’ (at Cork Public Museum) and the Petrie ‘crown’, so called because it came from the collection of the nineteenth-century antiquarian, George Petrie. Petrie either did not know or did not record where the object was originally found.
The ‘crown’ consists of a sheet of bronze with a pair of highly decorated discs attached to its front. The design on the discs is a highly stylised representation of a solar boat: the sun being carried across the heavens in a boat with a bird’s head prow and stern. Its presence on the Petrie ‘crown’ offers a rare insight into prehistoric religious beliefs, reflecting a complex solar cosmology that Ireland’s early inhabitants apparently shared with their European neighbours. Each disc supported a conical horn, only one of which survives. This complex bronze arrangement was then sewn on to a leather or textile band to form a head-dress. The very high quality of the decoration and riveting suggests that this was worn by a particularly powerful figure.
This power may have derived from links to Roman Britain. The horned head-dresses are a new phenomenon, utilising new casting technologies and showing off the high-end design of the European Iron Age culture known as La Tène. The Roman general Agricola remarked that Ireland could be taken with ‘one legion and a moderate number of auxiliaries’. It is possible that some kind of invasion was attempted. The Roman poet Juvenal records that ‘we have taken our arms beyond the shores of Ireland’. If this did happen, the invasion was either beaten back or the Romans decided that Ireland was not worth the effort of conquest.
They did, however, trade with Ireland. The historian Tacitus notes of the island in the first century that ‘the interior parts are little known, but through commercial intercourse and the merchants, there is better knowledge of the harbours and approaches’. The Irish imported goods from the Roman world, as we have seen from the presence of the Egyptian necklace in the Broighter hoard. There are Roman objects from the royal site at Tara, and there is even the skull of a Barbary ape from Navan Fort, in Co. Armagh. The trade went both ways, however; Roman Britain, with its cities and standing army, offered a thriving marketplace.
‘The development of urban centres’, says Eamonn Kelly of the National Museum of Ireland, ‘means there was demand for cattle on the hoof. The Roman army consumed large amounts of leather. They were importing hide, and they were probably importing butter as well. Those who can exploit these trade connections come from the rich grazing lands, and they will go on to form the core of Ireland’s mediaeval dynasties’.