The Irish Stone Axe Project

Stone axes have long been considered one of the characteristic artefact types of the Neolithic Period in Ireland (4000-2500 BC), and they are known to have been in use from the earliest phase of human settlement in the Early Mesolithic Period (c. 7000 BC), to well into the Bronze Age, from 2500 BC onwards. We now know that there are over 20,000 stone axes in Ireland, and this number will invariably rise as axes continue to come to light. Representing such a large body of data, stone axes are as invaluable a tool to the archaeologist interpreting early prehistory as they were in the lives of the people of this time. Studies of their distribution and context give an indication of settlement and trading patterns, and the many different methods and styles of manufacture provide clues as to the complex social and economic role that they clearly played.

The Irish Stone Axe Project (ISAP) was set up in 1990. Since 1991 it has had substantial research funding from the National Heritage Council and its successor the Heritage Council (since 1995) which has provided the essential funding for the research programme of the project. The project arose out of the realisation of the potential of stone axe studies in understanding many different aspects of earlier Irish prehistory, including human knowledge and exploitation of the geological environment. The basic aim of the the ISAP is to establish a database of Irish stone axes. This incorporates contextual, morphological and petrological information on all known stone axes. The database is the basis for further research on different aspects of the production, distribution and deposition of Irish stone axes.

One of the most important aspects of stone axe studies is the identification of the different rock types that were utilised in their manufacture, and the locating of potential sources for them. Research by the ISAP has shown that in Ireland, whilst a very wide range of lithologies were exploited, a relatively small number of rock types are abundant, and furthermore these tendto be concentrated in different parts of the country.

Project Personnel:

Dr Gabriel Cooney - Director

Dr Stephen Mandal - Post-doctoral research fellow (petrologist)

Emmet Byrnes (M.A.) - Research assistant

Finola O'Carroll (M.A.) - Research associate

List of publications:

Byrnes, E., 1996. The Early Prehistory of the Upper Shannon Catchment, with Special

Reference to Stone Axes. Unpublished MA thesis, University College Dublin.

Cooney, G., 1992. The gift of stone - the study of Irish stone axes. Archaeology Ireland 6(4), 24-7.

Cooney, G., 1993. Review of the work of the Irish Stone Axe Project 1991-1993. Unpublished report for

the National Heritage Council.

Cooney, G. 1995. At the cutting edge. Technology Ireland 26(9), 26-9.

Cooney, G., 1996. Lambay Island . In I. Bennett (ed) Excavations in Ireland 1995, 00-0. Wordwell,


Cooney, G. and Mandal, S., 1995. Getting to the core of the problem: petrological results from the Irish

Stone Axe Project. Antiquity 69, 969-80.

Cooney, G and O'Keeffe, T, 1996. A collection of prehistoric axeheads at St Patrick's College, Carlow.

Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 124, 210-213

Cooney, G., Mandal, S. and O'Carroll, F., 1995. Stone Axes as Icons: Approaches to the study of Stone

Axes in Ireland. In: E. Grogan and C. Mount (eds), Annus Archaeologiae, 23-36. OPW/OIA, Dublin.

Cooney, G., Feehan, J., Grogan, E. and Stillman, C., 1990. Stone Axes in Co. Tipperary. Tipperary

Historical Journal 2, 197-203.

Cooney, G., O'Carroll, F., Grogan, E. and Mandal, S. 1992. Stone Axes of County Louth: a second

report. County Louth Archaeological and Historical Journal 22(2), 178-86.

Mandal, S., 1996a. The Petrology of the Irish Stone Axe. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of

Dublin, Trinity College.

Mandal, S., 1996b. Irish Stone Axes - rock and role of the petrologist. Archaeology Ireland 38, 32-5

Mandal, S., in press. Striking the balance: the roles of petrography and geochemistry in stone axe studies

in Ireland. Archaeometry.

Mandal, S. and Cooney, G., in press. The Irish Stone Axe Project: A second petrological report. Journal

of Irish Archaeology.

Mandal, S., Cooney, G., O'Carroll, F. and Guinan, B., 1991/2. A review of the petrological techniques

being utilised to identify, group and source Irish stone axes. Journal of Irish Archaeology 6, 1-11

Mandal, S., Cooney, G., Meighan, I. and Jamison, D., in press. Using geochemistry to interpret

porcellanite stone axe production in Ireland. Jorrnal of Archaeological Science.