Author: Rachel and Michelle

This week I am going to blog about Ballafayle – a Neolithic site in the north of the island, not far from Maughold (SC 478 901). Ballfayle is not really a true round mound – but it is an interesting prehistoric burial site and Michelle has recently examined the human remains that were excavated from the site. The site is easily accessible on the ‘Quakers Road’ in Maughold.

Image1 Site
Ballafayle Cairn. Image. R.Crellin
Image2 Site (2)
Ballafayle Cairn: the low wall separating the mound from the forecourt is in the foreground. Image. R.Crellin

The site was partially excavated by P.M.C. Kermode in 1926. It is a roughly trapezoidal, asymmetrical mound. Many mounds from a similar period have megaliths (large standing stones) associated with them but Ballafayle does not, however, there are some small stones that form a kind of kerb facing along the edges of the mound. Between the retaining kerbs the mound is formed of rubbly stones. At the ‘front’ of the cairn there is a flat, paved area that we refer to as a forecourt. The site dates to the Neolithic period though it is hard to be more certain about when exactly in the Neolithic the site actually dates to.

Image 3MNH Plan crop
Plan of Ballafayle from the MNH archive

Excavation of the site revealed a large amount of burnt stone, layers of quartz and charcoal and human bone. As a result, this site is often referred to as a crematorium – a site where bodies were burned in-situ. Kermode suggested that the bodies of the dead were being laid on a pyre of peat and branches and then cremated, he also suggests that stones may have been piled up on top of the body while the pyre was still burning. Kermode also noted the presence of ‘white shore pebbles’ which we presume to be quartz pebbles brought from the beach throughout the structure of the cairn.

Image 4 Site (3)
Ballafayle Cairn: you can see the surrounding kerbing and the retaining wall between the mound and the forecourt. Image. R.Crellin

When Michelle began to examine the material at the museum she noted that many of the bones were grouped together in bags almost as if they had been found still partly articulated. She also noted how highly fragmented and crushed some of the bones were. Her examination of the bones supports what Kermode said that – that this was a body that had been cremated and left in-situ and then covered over with stones. The articulated nature of the skull (particularly the jaw) and the warping to the bone suggest that the individuals were still fleshed when they were cremated. The colouring and nature of the bones suggest that the heat of the pyre was not hot enough to fully cremate the long-bones. Michelle has established that there were at least two adult individuals present, one of them is possibly female but it was not possible to comment on the sex of the other individual.

Image 5MNH sign associated with the site
The interpretative sign at Ballafayle. The date is not accurate – when the sign was put in place we did not know as much as we do know about when the Neolithic actually dates to!

We are far from understanding everything about this site but it seems that Michelle’s work supports the argument that two individuals were burnt in-situ at this site. Radiocarbon dating of a sample of the human remains from the site in the coming months will help us understand when exactly it dates to.


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