August 2018 Scholar Spotlight

Allison Casaly, New York University

Posted by Nicholas on August 12, 2018


Note: Allison Casaly is the 2018 recipient of the Larkin Research Fellowship in Irish Studies. For this month’s feature she gives us a deep dive into the Irish Bronze Age and the objects of personal ornamentation at the core of her research.

I am extremely grateful for the generous funds offered by the Larkin Fellowship, and particularly for the willingness of ACIS to incorporate archaeology and prehistory into its purview. My research considers the interregional movement of people and ideas during the Irish Bronze Age (ca. 1500 – 800 BCE), in which existing conventions of settlement, mortuary behavior, trade networks, and metalwork deposition were overturned. I am particularly interested in the development of Irish regional identities and how they were used to negotiate this socially dynamic environment. My research explores the form, distribution, and depositional context of objects of personal ornamentation from the Irish Bronze Age as a proxy for social groupings, with the intention of identifying the foundations of regional consciousness in the Bronze Age.

An extensive body of anthropological literature has developed regarding the role played by systems of personal ornamentation in social environments. The function of personal ornamentation as a category is understood to intertwine closely with social identity, and thus to prove vital in the both negotiation and broadcast of individual and group personas through the manipulation of one’s appearance as a social interface. Ethnographic work by Ian Hodder and others suggests that the use of ornamentation in this way is particularly apparent in dynamic social environments in which the need to differentiate between proximate groups is more pronounced.

Image of the Shannongrove Gorget, V&A Museum

Figure 1: The Shannongrove gorget, found in a bog near Shannongrove, Co. Limerick. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London (see http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O71651/the-shannongrove-gorget-collar-unknown/).

This social theory is particularly applicable to the Irish Bronze Age, in which items such as bracelets, torcs, and dress pins were constructed principally out of gold, copper alloy, and amber. Irish goldwork, which almost exclusively constituted objects of personal ornamentation, was particularly technically impressive and is widely agreed to represent the pinnacle of metal craftsmanship in Europe during the Bronze Age. My research will therefore utilize different forms and motifs of ornamentation as proxies for areas of social self-identification. Preliminary research supports this methodology, as work by George Eogan identifies regional restriction in the distribution of a form of elaborate neck ornament called a gorget (Fig. 1), which is contained in the lower Shannon area. The midlands, in contrast, hosts a predominance of simple penannular bracelets, while the northeast was characterized by a high proportion of sleeve-fasteners. Such distinct preferences in ornamentation suggest that each area harbored a discrete social system whose traditions dictate the value placed on different forms of ornament.

I am currently working on the data collection phase of the project, for which the Larkin Fellowship’s generous support will be instrumental. Funds from the Larkin Fellowship will allow me to visit the collections databases of the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin and of the National Museum of Northern Ireland in Belfast; these institutions house records concerning every archaeological artifact recovered from their respective territories. After identifying sites which yielded objects of ornamentation through this collections research, I will visit the archives of the National Monuments Service in Dublin to access site reports produced by commercial excavation, the majority of which remains unpublished. The specific location, context and associative data derived from these site reports will allow me to extend my analysis to the active use, manipulation and deposition of ornaments rather than solely on their passive form, and thus on the ways in which humans incorporated ornaments into their social and/or cosmological structure.

I am honored to be chosen for the 2018 Larkin Fellowship, and I am grateful for the generous support. Through this research, I hope to serve as a vanguard for the integration of archaeology and prehistory into the warm and welcoming community of ACIS.