Social Cottage is the name of a site in the parish of Lonan. The site was excavated by Cannon Quine in 1925. The records regarding the site are quite sparse and none of the finds made their way into the museum as far as we can tell. Social cottage is slightly oval burial mound, dating to the Bronze Age.
Interpreting Canon Quine’s account of the excavation we think the first phase of activity at Social Cottage was the building of a stone cist on the land surface. The cist contained fragments of bone and earth. Around the cist a rubbly cairn was built. Archaeologists tend to use the term barrow to refer to a burial mound made of earth and cairn to refer to burial mounds with a higher stone content. The reality is that both barrows and cairns are constructed of earth and stone. There are however some cairns that are very rubbly with a very high stone content and barrows that are built primarily of soils and there are also some mounds that fall in the middle containing a mixture of both stone and earth.
The rubbly cairn was then covered with earth, increasing the size of the mound. It may well have been that the site was left as a cairn for some time and the layer of earth was added later. Alternately it may have been that the cairn was covered in an earth mound straight after construction. Into the top of the mound several additional burials were also inserted. Canon Quine reports finding multiple fragments of urns in the top earthen layer of the mound. Today we presume that these urns once contained cremated remains. Canon Quine also notes that at least one of the urns was found inverted on top of a shaped stone slab.
The information we have about this site is only partial, and I doubt we will ever be able to be sure of the fine detail of what went on at this site. What we can see is the way that past communities came to interact with their landscape repeatedly over time. The site was initially created as a rubbly burial mound containing a cist – perhaps one person was buried in the cist, or as at Staarvey, it may have been that the remains of several individuals were placed in the cist. These could have been related family members or part of the same small-community. It may have ben that one person was inserted into the cist, the cist was covered by the cairn and the cairn and cist were later re-opened and additional burials were inserted.
The urns found in the top of the earthen mound are often referred to as secondary burials – indicating that they are part of a later phase of use of the site. As we don’t have any of the bones or finds from the site we don’t know whether these burials were inserted a year after the building of the cist or hundreds of years later. It could be that these secondary burials could be members of the same family or community that were buried in the cist, or it could be that those buried at the site didn’t even know who had first been buried in the at this site but still deemed it an appropriate place to bury their dead.
Social Cottage is an interesting site because of its complex construction, potentially long use-life, and multiple burials. There are many sites that were excavated by antiquarians for which we have similar kinds of records for their form. One of the advantages of modern excavation techniques, is that were we to dig a site like this today, and to use modern scientific techniques like osteology and radiocarbon dating, we would be able to unpick this complex narrative in a far more detailed way allowing us to think about how much time elapsed between burials and how the monument changed over time.