Late Bronze Age, 1050-900 BC
From Dunaverney, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland
An ornate instrument for the serving of food
This hooked instrument was found by turf cutters in a bog at Dunaverney in 1829. The organic parts had been preserved in the peat and it was reported to have been about 1.2 metres in length. Antiquarians struggled for the rest of the nineteenth century to understand its age and function and the resulting debate made it the most celebrated of Irish prehistoric antiquities. With the discovery of more examples it was eventually dated to the Bronze Age. Recent radiocarbon dating has placed it more precisely to between 1050 and 900 BC, within the Late Bronze Age (about 1150-800 BC) - a time of superb bronze-working skills.
The object consisted of stretches of wooden shaft linking together three tubular bronze segments. One small section of wood that survives is studded with small strips of bronze set in a herringbone pattern. It seems to have suffered some damage around the time of discovery as there is evidence of modern repair to the rings suspended under the central portion. The pair of birds on the butt end can be identified as corvids, perhaps ravens, and the family along the middle portion as a pair of swans with three cygnets. The two sets may have represented opposing forces in the spirit world. Water birds of different kinds played an important part in contemporary central European cults.
How the hook functioned is difficult to resolve. It could have been a ceremonial goad, an instrument to prod animals. The favoured interpretation, however, is that it was used as a 'flesh-hook' to serve cooked food or pull chunks of meat out of a stew. In this context it is noteworthy that a number of contemporary bronze cauldrons have been found in the same area of Northern Ireland. The landscape of Ireland is also littered with special cooking sites where food may have been offered in return for allegiance to the distributor, the local chief. When used as instruments of food provision in this manner, ornate flesh-hooks would have been striking representations of chiefly authority.
British Museum, A guide to the antiquities of (London, British Museum, 1920)
P&EE 1856 12-22 1