In this week’s blog I want to explore a set of round mounds that can be easily visited if you happen to be on the Isle of Man and will give you a feel for what we mean when we are talking about round mounds.
Peel Hill is an excellent place for a walk (though the climb is steep), it is home to interesting history and archaeology and the views are amazing. Our project is interested in the cairns along the crest of the hill. They are best accessed by walking up Peel Hill on the path that heads for the crest of the hill from the Fenella Beach end. The mounds can be quite hard to spot if you don’t know what you are looking for. If you are coming from the Fenella beach end you will see the low lying, heather and gorse covered mounds on the right hand side of the path. Three of the cairns are relatively easy to spot and you can see them on the map below.
The three mounds that you can (hopefully) see date to the Early Bronze Age (c. 2200-1500 BC). They are often referred to as cairns. In archaeological-speak cairns are mounds that have quite a high stone content whereas we often use the term barrow to refer to mounds that are thought to be made primarily of earth. At some time probably between 1800-1500BC communities of mourners came together to bury their loved ones on top of this hill. We know of at least four cairns on the top of this hill but archaeologists suspect there were once more. The prehistoric mourners built rubbly mounds up on the top of the hill, they dug earth and gathered rocks to build these mounds to create the right kind of place to bury their loved ones. Standing on top of Peel Hill on a clear day it is clear why they might have wanted to do so – looking out you can see Peel and the surrounding hills, over to Bradda and Port Erin and even out to Ireland.
So what do we know about these mounds? In 1878 four mound were excavated in this area, the records suggest that this excavation was carried out by Mr Richard Wood of Plumpton Hall in Heywood, Lancashire. It is suggested that one of the cairns he excavated had been previously disturbed as an early OS map had been marked with ‘Urns Found’ and Mr Wood’s own account suggests he thought it had been disturbed. In the first cairn a pottery vessel was found upside down over a cremation as well as a bronze object that was so corroded it fell to pieces. Inverting pottery urns over cremated remains is quite common in the Early Bronze Age. On the Isle of Man we have good records for at least 63 burials with pottery vessels, of those we can be confident that a minimum of 18 were found inverted over the cremated remains. The two most common vessel types to be found inverted over cremated remains are Cordoned Urns and Collared Urns. These are large pottery vessels, in Ireland they date roughly to between 1850-1500 cal BC. This bronze object is quite interesting for something that fell apart so quickly – it was initially recorded as having been a spearhead about two inches long and 1 and a half inches broad. Spearheads are very rare in graves. In a catalogue of Early and Middle Bronze Age Spearheads from Britain (Davis, 2012) only 3% of all recorded spearheads are suggested to have come from graves. Spearheads are also usually quite a bit bigger than the object mentioned here. The shortest sub-category of spearhead recorded in the same catalogue as the information about spears in burials is 120mm which is quite a bit bigger than the two inches (50.8mm) recorded for this spearhead. These factors together mean that many archaeologists since 1878 have suggested that what Mr Wood dug up that day was very unlikely to have been a spear and more likely to have been a razor or knife instead.
The second and third cairns Mr Wood opened are reported to have contained cists. A cist is a kind of stone box within which the remains of the dead, either cremated or not, can be placed. Unsurprisingly, on the Isle of Man these cists are most commonly made of slate. The second mound, was described by Mr Wood as having been composed of sand and loose stones. The cist was described as square, about 36cm in length and width and 46cm deep. Within it Mr Wood found a large inverted urn decorated with a chevron pattern and three projecting rims. The third cairn contained a cist of a similar size, in the corner of the cist was a small decorated vessel containing “unctuous soil and two unrecognisable bones”. The cist also contained a second deposit of remains – a cremation placed on top of a layer of white pebbles
The fourth cairn that he opened was reported to be barren. It may be that Mr Wood only dug a hole in the middle and missed the burial, it may have been that he found the burial but didn’t realise, or it may well have been that there never was a burial placed in that particular mound.
Sadly none of the finds from Peel Hill ever made it to the Manx Museum – it may well have been that Mr Woods took them home with him, as was common at the time.
MNH’s curator of field archaeology occasionally does guided walks on Peel Hill which we recommend!