BALLYSHANON SUN DISC

One of the earliest documented prehistoric objects 

This gold disc, decorated with simple raised decoration (repoussé), was probably discovered in a prehistoric burial monument in Ballyshannon, County Donegal, Ireland. It is recorded as having been found by men who were searching for a grave described in an Irish song as belonging to a giant wearing gold ornaments.

Dating to the centuries around 2500–2150 BC, such objects are known as ‘sun discs’ although there is no direct evidence for their identification as sun symbols. More than 30 examples are recorded from Ireland, Britain and various parts of Europe including France, Spain and Portugal. The design on the Ballyshanon disc of a cross shape surrounded by circles and geometric patterns is typical of these objects. Similar decoration is also known from ceramic vessels of the same date. Many discs are pierced in the centre with two holes that may have been used to sew them to a piece of clothing or a head-dress, perhaps in pairs. It had been thought that the gold may have come from Ireland, but a new scientific technique developed at Southampton University suggests that the metal for at least some of the discs may have originated in Cornwall.

The Ballyshannon ‘sun disc’ has been in the Ashmolean since the late 17th century. It was first illustrated in the 1695 edition of William Camden’s Britannia, a chronological survey of Great Britain and Ireland, making it among the earliest documented discoveries of a prehistoric artefact from the British Isles.

Ballyshannon, County Donegal, Ireland
c. 2500–2150 BC
Gold
Diam. 5.5 cm 
Presented by The Revd Dr Charles Hopkins, 1696
AN1836 p.139.372