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The Lambay Island Settlers - Brigantes or Dobunni?

John Hooker


Improvements to the harbour at Lambay Island, Co. Dublin in 1927 resulted in the find of several Late Iron Age burials. The finds included a badly corroded iron sword classified by Piggott (1950, 21-22) in his Group V (Battersea type) to which he attributes a Belgic influence. Raftery, (1984, 73) says that this sword could be more readily included in Piggott's Group IV because of the northern British connections for the Lambay material.

The idea of a northern British origin for the Lambay Island settlers rests mainly on another of the finds: a bronze beaded torc. Raftery (1997, fig. 129) provides a distribution map of this type of torc showing sixteen find spots. Of these, five are within the territory of the West Brigantes; three from the Votadini; four roughly in the area of the tribes west of the Votadini, i.e. the Damnonii, Selgovae, and the Carvetii. The outliers consist of single examples from Parisii, Ordovices and Dobunii territories as well as the Lambay Island example. Exact tribal attributions for some of these are difficult, as we cannot be certain of tribal boundaries at any given time. This is especially true of the tribes west of the Votadini.

The focus on the west Brigantes is not so much a clear clustering pattern in the distribution map as it is an effect of the size of the tribes' territory. Three of the finds west of the Votadini are scattered over an area about the same size as four of the Brigantes finds. Such small numbers combined with a wide distribution pattern cannot clearly reveal the manufacturing centre of the type. Further complicating the matter is the fact that torcs belong to a high-status category of artefact, and such items are prone to being widely distributed by trade, through gifts and war booty.

Two areas are well known for the manufacture of various bronze decorative trade objects: the Votadini with their main workshop at Traprain Law and the Brigantes with their workshop at Settle. The latter are best known for brooches of the dragonesque type. Besides the west Brigantian style there is also an east Brigantian style that might even be of the Parisii. Like the beaded torcs, the distribution pattern for dragonesque brooches is very scattered although there is a clear clustering for the west Brigantian style around Settle.

There is nothing among the decorative work of the Lambay Island finds that hearkens to any of the design elements found on dragonesque brooches and little in the way of connections to other objects from Yorkshire. The idea that the beaded torcs are of Brigantian manufacture (Rynne 1976) and that the settlers were Brigantian is refuted by Kilbride-Jones (1980, p.145) who points out that the decoration on the Lambay Island "scabbard mount can be paralleled at Polden Hill, where it can be seen on one of the mounts (Fig. 24:3); and further, British parallels (quoted by Rynne) for the decoration on the [Lambay Island] gold band are to be found at Stroud, Gloucestershire, and Santon, Norfolk."

Kilbride-Jones refers to one of the two openwork scabbard mounts found at Lambay Island. This is illustrated by Raftery (1984, Pl. 25.2). The other mount is also illustrated by Raftery (Pl. 25.3) and bears multiple triskele ornaments. The tapering form of the triskeles compares well to the Ashmolean mount (Fox, 1958, Pl. 69 and Jope, 2000, Pl. 200a.) which might be a local (Dobunii) find, but also to a number of other objects of wide distribution including the shield bosses and openwork mount from Tal-y-Llyn, Merioneth (Jope, 2000 Pl. 96-7) and the roundels of the Trawsfynydd tankard handle (Jope, 2000 Pl 228-9). The terminals of these roundels are of a similar design to the terminals of the triangular plate from Lambay (Raftery, 1984, Fig 139.2)

The gold strip from Lambay Island (Raftery, 1984, Fig. 135) hardly finds any close parallel, but certain aspects of its decoration are very believably Dobunnic -- the linear form of decoration and the presence everywhere of paired annulets (this is also seen on the ornithomorphic terminals of the Lambay Island triangular plate). One type of decoration on Glastonbury and Meare pottery (Fox, 1958, fig. 81) differs mainly in the fact that, on the pot, the composition is arranged in an S scroll while on the gold strip it is in a straight line. Also, the strip has a cross in circle motif in addition to paired annulets. The pottery just uses the paired annulet motifs. I used to own an unprovenanced buffer torc terminal from England with a red enamel filled cross in circle motif and a cross in circle motif is fairly common on Celtic coins from Britain and the continent.


The round bronze disc from Lambay Island (Raftery, 1984, Fig 139.1) presents a similar problem to the triskele scabbard mount. The triskele motif has an encircled rosette at the centre and each limb ends in a large S-scroll. A bead is positioned in each limb of the triskele and within the outer curl of each S-Scroll. These elements are widespread in Celtic art and have a long history.

Although there are a number of design parallels between the Lambay Island objects and various objects from southwestern England one can still find exceptions. Kilbride-Jones finds comparisons between the scabbard mount and two objects from within Dobunni territory, but also an object from the territory of the Iceni in Norfolk. The problem of high status objects and the decorative elements they bear combined with the late date of the Lambay Island finds allows for just too much diffusion to be certain of their origins. We do see an emphasis on designs more typical to Southern and western Britain and even the beaded torc has one example with a provenance from within Dobunni territory but all of this evidence does not provide us with much certainty.

The key to really understanding the origins of the Lambay Island settlers does not come from any of the objects I have mentioned so far, but to the most neglected decorative objects in the assemblage, the Roman period brooches. Their function in the literature is mainly to date the finds to the third quarter of the 1st century A.D. The value of the brooches to identifying the origins of the settlers comes from the fact that brooches are not high status objects at all. Being made cheaply and without the need for the skills of the high status metal smith, much of the trade was local. This results in fairly clear distribution patterns for the commoner types. Of course, like all objects, "outliers" exist for most types but these often show a general direction of diffusion. Perhaps they came to these remote locations as gifts to trading partners; perhaps they reflect the movements of people moving to new homes. Roman soldiers, too, brought various small bronze objects into areas far from their point of origin: finds of northern British dress fasteners are fairly common in southern England.

Most British bow brooch types have their origins in southern, southwestern and eastern Britain and many types bear names of the place of origin. Some types became fashionable over a wide area while others remained very localised in their distribution patterns.

The Lambay Island brooches are illustrated by Raftery (1997, Fig. 127). The first appears to be a dolphin type (Hattatt, 1987, p. 92ff.) which has a wide distribution mostly in the southern half of England. Next comes a more informative brooch: a Rosette brooch of Hull's Camulodunum Class B with lozenge (Hattatt, 1987, p. 47ff.). Hattatt says of all three main classes of rosette brooches: "Of ninety four examples of known provenance no less than forty one are from Essex (44%), all but four from Colchester". The Class B with lozenge has only one northerly outlier, and that is from Lincolnshire, the only other example away from the South-East is an example from Dorset. The related Class B with disc is commoner (and having the same construction details, I see no reason to suppose that they are not contemporary). None of these are further north than what appears on the map as the Suffolk/Essex border. The other outliers are four from Hampshire, one from Dorset, and two from Gloucestershire. Hattatt says that all the Rosette brooches finish "around A.D. 60 or 70, their life here thus being rather a short one."

The third brooch is a typical Langton Down type. (Hattatt, 1987, p. 41ff.) These start on the Continent in pre-conquest times and end around A.D. 75. They seem to range mainly from eastern to southwestern England. Norfolk is the commonest provenance given, but their name site is in Dorset. This example is typical for Continental and British alike (see Hattatt number 770 - from France).

The final two brooches are the most telling, as they have a very small range. In form and decoration, they are almost identical to Hattatt number 900, a Polden Hill variant, the only difference being that the rearward hook is absent -- as the cord and spring are missing on both the Lambay Island examples, I cannot say whether it ever existed. Some Polden Hill variants do not have this hook. Hattatt says of 900: "This sub-type is centered around the Gloucestershire area and neighbouring counties, with more northerly outliers as far as Wroxeter, as this specimen." Polden Hill brooches have a narrow life span -- around A.D. 50-70 according to Hattatt. He says their distribution is "mostly to the southern part of England, but with a certain concentration towards the lower Severn area, which of course contains their name site."


In the general evolution of brooches, we can see a development from the Colchester type moving westward to the Polden Hill types. Hattatt says: "the head crest, vestigial of the parent Colchester's forward hook, persists on many, but not all examples." This general movement is mirrored exactly by the Lambay Island brooch types, and only coincides with the southernmost of the beaded torc finds. This is especially significant because of the narrow focus of the Polden Hill variant, and this is represented by two identical examples at Lambay Island.

Taking all of the evidence together, I am confident in assigning the Lambay Island settlers to members of the Dobunni tribe who sailed to Lambay Island via the Severn estuary circa 60 A.D. It seems most likely that they were dissatisfied with the increasing Romanization of their homeland and saw the opportunity to pursue their traditional way of life far from Roman eyes. Perhaps they might have been the vanguard of a warrior group determined to keep the Romans from expanding their control to Ireland, we can only speculate on such matters.




Fox, Sir C., 1958. Pattern and Purpose - A Survey of Early Celtic Art in Britain.

Hattatt, R., 1987. Brooches of Antiquity - A third selection of brooches from the author's collection.

Jope, E. M., 2000. Early Celtic Art in the British Isles

Kilbride-Jones, H. E., 1980. Celtic Craftsmenship in Bronze.

Piggot, S., 1950. "Swords and Scabbards of the British Early Iron Age", Proc. Prehist. Soc. 15.

Raftery, B., 1984. La Tène in Ireland - Problems of Origin and Chronology.

Raftery, B., 1997. Pagan Celtic Ireland - The Enigma of the Irish Iron Age. (paperback ed.)

Rynne, E., 1976. "The La Tène and Roman Finds from Lambay, Co. Dublin: a re-assessment", Proc. Roy. Irish Acad.


© John Hooker

John Hooker researches and writes about Celtic coinage, iconography and art. He developed a new method in Celtic numismatics to determine the chronology of die creation rather than use, with which he reclassified the Coriosolite coinage in "Celtic Improvisations: An Art Historical Analysis of Coriosolite Coins", BAR International Series 1092, Oxford, 2002. He is the owner of the Celtic Coin Index On Line, a resource listing and illustrating about 28,000 British Celtic coins. This is a modern version of the card index started at Oxford by Derek Allen and Sheppard Frere in 1961. John lives in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.



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