Back in the summer of 2015 I asked Chris whether he might be interested in putting a new field project together to investigate round mounds on the Isle of Man. From this began the first of many conversations about what exactly we might like to do and what we could hope to achieve from this kind of research. In this first blog post I want to talk about how we came up with the project, what questions we are hoping to answer through it and what is involved in the first phase of the project.
Chris and I both study the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods and we both wrote PhDs which explored the archaeology of the Isle of Man. We are interested in how communities have treated the deceased in the past and how this changes over time. At some point in our lives we all have to deal with the death of a loved one, for most of us this will involve the process of grieving at the same time as dealing with the ‘nuts and bolts’ of a death. We try to provide our loved one with the kind of ‘send off’ that we think they might have wanted and one that is appropriate for our family and community. We have to deal with all kinds of changes that result from a single death. The situation was no different in prehistory. The specifics of what it is that make for a ‘good’ death and the correct way to care for the dead have changed over time but the broad issues we face following a death are similar. Studying burial practices offers us a glimpse of the past which can help us learn about what mattered to prehistoric communities and how this changed over time.
Chris and I spent about a year working on a proposal for this project; we looked at the existing datasets and re-assessed what we knew about burials in the period and what we didn’t know. From this we shaped six sets of questions which give shape to our project:
- Mound typology, identification and chronology: How diverse or similar are Manx round mounds in size, shape and composition? Is it possible to confidently identify different kinds of round mounds, and identify sites that may actually be shielings and burnt mounds, without excavation? When were different types of Manx round mounds built?
- Landscape location: Where were round mounds of differing types and periods located in the landscape? What was the local environment like when they were built? How were they situated with respect to other round mounds, and other important places in the contemporary landscape?
- Mound composition and Internal features: What features were buried beneath, or contained within, round mounds? What internal structures are there, built using what types of materials? What materials did mounds consist of? Which mounds were modified (e.g. enlarged), how and when?
- Peripheral and external features: Which sites were bounded with stone kerbs? Is there evidence for activity in the area around the mound?
- The dead, material culture and round mounds: Which mounds were used for burial of the dead, and who was buried within those mounds? What can we learn about the health, diet, and mobility patterns of those people, as well as their sex and age-at-death? What mortuary treatments were their bodies subject to before deposition? What kinds of objects were commonly deposited with the dead, in features, and in mound material?
- Connectivity, trends and regional identities: How do patterns in all of the above on the Isle of Man compare to those in Britain and Ireland? What do results suggest about connectivity involving the Isle of Man, and the place of the island in wider social networks?
From here we began to design our ideal first phase of research and put together funding proposals. The work falls into two key areas that will allow us to begin to address some of our questions about round mound burials on the Isle of Man in the Neolithic and Bronze Age:
A: Analysis of museum collections
- Osetological analysis of all the human remains in the museum collection thought to date to the Neolithic or Bronze Age.
- aDNA analysis of the human remains suitable for analysis
- Radiocarbon dating of selected human remains
- Stable isotope analysis of selected human remains
- Re-assessment of the evidence held in the museum and archives
B: Landscape analysis
- Landscape surveys using magnetometry, ground penetrating radar and 3D laser scans
- Construction of a GIS (geographical information system) for the Isle of Man utilising databases of sites, aerial photographs, old maps and LiDAR data
- Analysis of the GIS to consider:
- Can we identify new mounds
- What landscape locations are mounds found in
- Is there patterning in the locations of different types of mound
- How many mounds are surviving today (compared to on earlier maps and antiquarian accounts)
In addition to the research activities the first phase also includes a range of work to publicise the results of the project. This will include newspaper articles, radio interviews, public lectures, published academic journal articles, an exciting week of workshops for school children on the island and, of course, this blog.
We were incredibly pleased to gain permission for this work from Manx National Heritage and funding for it from both Manx National Heritage and Culture Vannin. In September 2016 we went to the Isle of Man to begin work on the project. In the coming weeks and months we are going to offer blog updates on each aspect of the work we are carrying out so that you can see how the project is going and what we are learning.
Your comments and questions are very welcome so please feel free to get in touch!