Last week when we were on the Isle of Man we did an interview with Culture Vannin which we hope to share with you soon. Culture Vannin funded Michelle’s osteological research and the forthcoming schools workshops we are planning so it was great to be able to talk to them about what we have achieved so far and what we are going to be doing in the coming months. During the interview with James Franklin (Culture Vannin’s Online and Educational Resources Officer) we were asked for some examples of round mounds people could go and visit: I suggested the three on Peel Hill I’ve talked about on the blog before as well as one of my favourite mounds – Killeaba. Talking about Killeaba with James prompted me to write this week’s blog.
Not many people know there is a very important prehistoric burial site right in the middle of a Ramsey cul de sac! Nestled in-between the houses in ‘Killeaba Mount’ is a small, mis-shaped lump of grass. You could be forgiven for thinking this was a bit of a weird patch of open space for the community. This lump however is not just a patch of uneven grass but instead, a cemetery where the remains of at least 11 people were interred between about 3300 BC and 1800 BC.
This mound isn’t like many of the other mounds we have discussed so far in the blog – it is not a man-made mound. Instead this is a natural glacial mound – it was created during the last ice age by glacial processes and then remained in the landscape. It is an odd lump in the ground today and would have also been an odd lump in the landscape 1000s of years ago. Standing on top of the mound you can see out across Ramsey Bay and out towards the Point of Ayre and behind you the hills surround you. If you look closely at the ground you can see that there are a few rectangular depressions in the surface of the mound – these are the outlines of archaeological trenches!
The mound has been known about for years, in 1860 Oswald described the mound noting it was quite, large and that a “rude stone grave” had been found on the top of the mound containing some fragments of pottery and “a black substance which was probably charred human bone”. Oswald’s account tells us that this mound had been opened by an antiquarian and that they had found a cist most likely containing cremated remains. Sadly, we don’t know what happened to the pottery or the human bone that he mentions.
In 1968-9 construction work began for the building of the houses in Killeaba Mount and A.Marshall Cubbon was called in to carry out an excavation. Marshall Cubbon had been appointed Director of the Manx Museum in 1957 and in that role he oversaw archaeology on the island for the period of his directorship. Cubbon’s excavation covered about 50% of the mound and discovered that there were many more burials in the mound than the antiquarians had found when they opened the one cist in the middle of the mound. Cubbon was able to identify where the antiquarians had dug in the mound and a second disturbance to the archaeology where a sheep skeleton had been deposited. Cubbon published his findings in 1978 in the Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society. During the research for my doctoral thesis Culture Vannin funded an additional 4 radiocarbon dates for this site to accompany the 3 that Cubbon published. In the years that have passed between 1978 and 2014 our understanding of the prehistory of Britain and Ireland has improved, and when combined with the new radiocarbon dates, this allowed me to re-sequence the site giving it a more refined history.
The first activity we know about at Killeaba occurred in the Middle Neolithic when a group of people deposited a set of cremated remains in a shallow pit dug into the mound. When these remains were found they were uncovered as a confined deposit which indicates they were probably held within an organic bag which has not survived. These first remains date to between 3351-3096 cal BC (OxA-27112). The next set of remains deposited at the site were buried within a timber-lined pit. Cremated remains were scattered throughout this timber-lined pit and are dated to 3121-2839 cal BC (BM-839). The dates ranges for these two sets of cremated remains allow two possible interpretations: both burials could have occurred at a similar time, or at a time when the earlier deposit was known about by those burying the second set or remains. Alternatively, the two burials could have been made by two separate communities, separated by generations who knew nothing of the actions of each other.
In the Late Neolithic there is a range of activity at the site. The oldest of which is another deposit of cremated remains in a second timber-lined pit dated to 3031-2864 cal BC (BM-840). Two large pottery vessels, which we refer to as ‘Ronaldsway Earthfast Jars’ were deposited in the mound. This kind of pottery is associated with the Late Neolithic on the Isle of Man. Earthfast Jars are large vessels varying in height between 30-100cm, they are usually found buried in the ground so that their rims would have sat level with the earth’s surface at the time of burial. Often they are found covered with a flat piece of slate which acts as a kind of lid for them. These vessels are made of a rough kind of pottery where large fragments of grit are included in the pottery. The vessels are often decorated on the rim and some recent research has revealed some of them were painted on their bodies. I really like these pottery vessels – but, we still do not completely understand what they are for. What we can say is that they are often found in association with burial sites or seemingly in isolation from settlement sites. They are either found empty of containing a few scraps of cremated remains. As a pottery vessel buried in the earth they form a kind of container into which people could place things and then remove them.
In addition to the two Earthfast Jars buried at the site there was also evidence of a burning. The archaeology suggests a pit was dug into the mound and several burning events occurred within it. Some of the burning occurred before one of the Earthfast Jars was deposited and some more burning occurred afterwards which means we can suggest that this was a site that the community returned to on multiple occasions. It is possible that the burning pit could have been used to cook food, or to light a fire to keep people warm, but it is also possible that this burning pit might have been used to cremate the bodies of the dead.
In addition to the Jars and the burning pit a further three burials probably occurred during this period. We don’t have radiocarbon dates for these burials but their relationship with other features we do have dates for and the nature of the deposits allows us to argue that they date to the Late Neolithic. One deposit was placed within a third timber-lined pit and again the cremated bone was scattered throughout the pit. A second deposit was accompanied by a flint knife and scattered over a small area and a third deposit was placed within a small spread of stones.
Next week we will move on talk about the continued use of the site into the Early Bronze Age.
Details about Killeaba can be found in the following publications (all available in the MNH Library):
- Cubbon, A.M. 1978. Excavations at Killeaba, Ramsey, Isle of Man. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 44: 69-95
- Crellin, R.J. 2015. Tracing change at Killeaba. Isle of Man Studies 13: 29-44.