This week we turn to St Johns in our continuing exploration of the prehistoric landscape of the Isle of Man.
St Johns is best known for Tynwald Hill – the seat of the Manx Parliament and location of the Tynwald Day ceremony and celebrations every year on 5th July. Some believe that Tynwald Hill itself may be located on top of a Bronze Age burial mound. Several sources suggest it was once a prehistoric burial site but archaeologists are far from certain. There are several mounds in the surrounding area, including the one discussed below, and it is more than possible that there was some confusion in the past regarding these other burial sites and Tynwald Hill. In the ‘90s Bournemouth University, as part of the Billown Landscape Project, carried out some geophysical surveys to try and find evidence of the prehistoric use of the hill but were unsuccessful (this is not at all surprising – the area has been much disturbed and landscaped during its long history). The question of whether Tynwald Hill sits on an even older site is a bit of a controversial subject and as P.M.C. Kermode (past Director of the Manx Museum) argued– without excavation we will never really know. Tynwald Hill is so central to Manx heritage and identity that excavation seems unlikely.
But, there is evidence of another Bronze Age Burial mound just a few meters away. Just past Tynwald Hill, on the road towards Tynwald Mills, tucked into the walling is a Bronze Age burial cist. The cist has literally been built into, and on-top of, the wall!
This cist was part of a Bronze Age burial mound that is generally referred to as ‘The Giant’s Grave St Johns’. The cist is orientated east-west and the capstone measures 1.2m by 1.3m giving us a sense of the size of the cist. We think that the cist was exposed around 1848 during the cutting of the road down to Tynwald Mills. At this time part of the mound remained intact in the field to the west and the other part was removed to build the road. The records surrounding the cist are fragmentary: we think that a flint core was found inside the cist alongside fragments of human bone. A flint core is the nodule of flint that is struck and worked to produce flint tools. Sadly none of these remains were not retained.
Whilst we know very little about who was buried here we do know some more about the ‘architecture’ of the site. The mound was constructed mainly of sand and gravel but had white quartz shingle scattered over the top of the mound and lining the floor of the cist. The burial mound must have looked quite striking in the surrounding landscape when it was constructed: sand and gravel loosely piled up to create the mound and then covered in shining white stones. This mound would have stood out in the landscape and shows the ways in which prehistoric communities used different materials to create striking architecture – this is not just a rough-and-ready pile of earth to cover the dead but rather a complex construction, possibly created in multiple stages with a visually striking final appearance. This kind of use of quartz to create a mound with a specific appearance is also known from another site called Herristal which is near Orrisdale. The description for Herritsal is more detailed than the one we have for St Johns. William Cubbon tells us that the mound at Herristal was capped with a layer of white clay which had been ‘sprinkled with scores of broken white quartz’ which were pressed into the creamy coloured clay.
So how did the cist end up built into a wall? In 1945 the Manx Museum report states that:
“… the Bronze Age cist exposed many years ago (c. 1848) in the side of the road close to Tynwald Hill partially collapsed into the road. It has now been safely bedded on a solid foundation in place of the natural sand and gravel on which it formerly rested, and the heavy capstone will be replaced. The burial chamber was originally covered by a large circular mound of earth, half of which was cut away for road widening more than 100 years ago.”
On your next visit to Tynwald be sure to look out for the little Bronze Age cist built into the wall!
Cubbon W. 1932. The Herristall Tumulus, Kirk Malew. Journal of the Manx Museum 11: 32,74.
Megaw, B. R. S. 1945. ‘The Ancient Monuments – Cist at Tynwald Hill’ in the Annual Report of the Manx Museum and National Trust, Douglas: 5-6.
Oswald, H.R. 1860. Vestigia Insulae Manninae Antiquiora.