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Landscape Mysteries - Programme 1: In Search of Irish Gold

Updated Monday 24th October 2005

Judging by the quantity of gold artefacts discovered in Ireland, gold was readily available there in the bronze age but where did it come from? Aubrey Manning investigates.

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Spectacular hoards of gold objects, now in the Dublin Museum, show Bronze Age people in Ireland were able to find large amounts of the precious metal. But in the Irish landscape today there’s little sign of gold. So where did these prehistoric metalworkers find it? Aubrey Manning sets off across Ireland in search of a lost Irish Eldorado.

In the Wicklow Hills, scene of a Gold Rush in the 1880s, Aubrey learns how to pan for gold in the streams, and he realises how little gold can now be found this way. But he later learns of a way of tracing the source of the Bronze Age gold, by comparing the amount of silver impurity in the gold objects with that in the known deposits in the landscape.

On Croagh Patrick, the holy mountain on Ireland’s west coast, Aubrey meets geologist Rob Chapman, as he hunts for gold samples with which to compare the Bronze Age objects. Later, Aubrey heads north to the Sperrin Mountains in search of other possible sources of the gold, and visits the site of a recent exploratory gold mine. But the gold here is too deep to have been found by Bronze Age people.

Meanwhile, in Rob Chapman’s laboratory, it seems the gold from Croagh Patrick does show the best match with the Bronze Age objects. Aubrey realises that the key to the mystery is that the landscape has changed since the Bronze Age. The thick covering of upland peat has built up in the last 3,000 years, after early settlers felled the forests. So Bronze Age gold prospectors would have had easier access to outcrops of surface gold than we have today. Back then they would have found all the gold they needed from rich pickings on the surface, and washed down by streams.


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