Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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(Andrew Fox)

While conducting a routine follow-up call into a burglary, Irish police discovered extremely rare Bronze Age artifacts: a gold, crescent-shaped collar known as a lunula and two "sun disks," coin-sized gold circles decorated with crosses. The 4,000-year-old objects were stolen during a break-in at a family-owned pharmacy in Strokestown, 90 miles northwest of Dublin. Until the robbery, the family had kept the items locked in the pharmacy safe. It's unclear who first excavated them or where they were found.

Police recovered the artifacts from a garbage bin near a suspected criminal's residence in Dublin only moments before a city garbage truck was due to collect it. Two men were arrested in connection with the theft.

"This is certainly the [Irish] find of the last few years," says archaeologist Patrick Wallace, director of the National Museum of Ireland. "It's among the earliest expressions of metalwork in gold." Both the lunula and the disks, which would have been worn by a tribal chieftain or a religious leader during ceremonial events, are now being analyzed at the National Museum.

A new study pinpoints mountains in northern Ireland as the source for much of the gold that was used to create objects such as the lunula. A group of archaeologists and geologists used X-ray fluorescence spectrometry to analyze more than 400 artifacts, as well as raw samples obtained through ancient extraction techniques such as gold-panning and crushing heated rock. They found Ireland's gold originated in the Mourne Mountains.

"We never would have previously guessed that the mountains played such an important role in prehistoric times," says archaeologist Richard Wagner, one of the authors of the study. "They seem to have been a main reason why Ireland was able to produce such a vast quantity of gold objects during the early Bronze Age."