A (very) brief history of round mounds in the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age of the British Isles – Part 1

Authors: Chris & Rachel

There were many ‘pulses’ of round mound building in the prehistoric past. Some of these pulses may have been relatively short – a few centuries or less – while others may have lasted longer. Some were more localised, others took place across large areas of northern Europe. Round mounds were also re-used in different pulses of burial activity. One of the aims of this project is to map out the chronology of these pulses of mound construction and use alongside other changes in burial practice on the Isle of Man in the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age.

The first round mounds in the British and Irish Isles were constructed in the early to mid fourth millennium BC (that is, c. 3800-3500 BC), probably a few centuries after the earliest introduction of domesticated livestock and cereals and the first pottery at the outset of the Neolithic. Early Neolithic mounds generally contained or covered small chambers made of wood or stone, and were mostly composed of earth. Some were round, but many more were long or trapezoid – Ballafayle in Maughold Parish is probably a good example of the latter.  The very unusual circular arrangement of stone chambers at Mull Hill also date to this period. Neolithic round and long mounds have cousins and ancestors in other parts of northern Europe, but also formed varied traditions. Some of those traditions spread across the Irish Sea, including the Isle of Man. For instance, there are very similar tombs to those at King Orry’s Grave in Ireland and in southwest Scotland.


Ballafayle – Image: Rachel


Meayll Circle. Image: Rachel


In Ireland, passage graves – megalithic stone-walled tombs with a long passage connecting a chamber to the exterior of a round mound – were being built in the middle on the fourth millennium. The larger, best-known examples from the Boyne Valley were probably built around c.3200-3000 cal BC, and human remains recovered from these are largely cremated. Similar passage graves are also known in Orkney, on Anglesey. The stone surfaces of the passages, chambers and kerbs of the tombs on Anglesey and in parts of Ireland were heavily decorated. It is not clear whether some round mounds with passages and simple chambers which have no traces of such carved or pecked stone decoration in south-west Scotland, such as Bargrennan White Cairn, were part of this phenomenon or built during a later period. Some of the megalithic monuments that survive only as rows of standing stone on the Isle of Man may also have been passage graves – Giant’s Grave at Kew, Poortown, in particular.


Giant’s Grave, Kew. Image: Rachel

Another series of round mounds was built in some parts of Britain in the middle to late Neolithic, sometimes covering single or paired burials which were sometimes contained in cists. There is a group of such burials in the Peak District, for instance. ‘Linkardstown’ style tombs in Ireland consisted of one or more small cists enclosed within a round mound. These largely held unburnt human remains, and probably date to the centuries immediately after 3500 BC millennium. A burial in a stone cist from Bishop’s Demense, Ballaugh, dating to the mid to late Neolithic is perhaps comparable to these, although the body in this burial was cremated and it is not clear how extensive any covering mound was.

Mound building was only sporadic in the late Neolithic on mainland Britain. One ‘great mound’ – eventually reaching over 35m in diameter and over 6m high – was built over a burial site that had been used repeatedly for centuries at Duggleby Howe in eastern Yorkshire at the start of the third millennium BC. A few round barrows were built over small cemeteries of cremated remains around 3200-3000 BC. At Killeaba, Ramsey, it seems that a natural mound was used for burial at this time – something that Rachel demonstrated through radiocarbon dating during her PhD research. This site is particularly interesting because the same mound was also used as a burial ground in the Early Bronze Age. In Britain a series of exceptionally large round mounds such as the famous Silbury Hill near Avebury were built near large enclosures such as henges or palisade enclosures late in the Neolithic. These do not seem to have contained burials.

Killeaba, Ramsey. Image: Rachel


Next week – The beginning of the Bronze Age awaits us!



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