Ballateare – the prehistoric story

Author: Rachel


Last week I stepped outside of my comfort zone to tell you about the Viking burial mound at Ballateare – this week we get to the good stuff! We will dig under the Vikings and begin to explore the prehistoric burials beneath the mound.

The majority of the remains from this site date to the Late Neolithic. The bones that the farmer had been finding during his farm work were part of a Late Neolithic burial site. All the individuals buried at this site were cremated but their bones were handled in a variety of ways. Some bones were placed within an Earthfast Jar, others were placed within small pits and some were found within hollows. The hollows were 1-2m wide, up to 60cm deep, and contained a single fill of brown sand, humus, charcoal flecks, worked flints and cremated bone fragments. In the pits the cremated bones were in small discrete deposits suggesting that they had perhaps once been contained with an organic container, such as a bag, that has long since rotted away.

Five Earthfast Jars (check out the Killeaba – part 1 blog for more on these vessels) were buried at this site with their rims level with the surface of the ground at the time of their burial. Within one of the jars Bersu found cremated remains, a miniature vessel (in the same style as the large one), the head of a bone pin, and a broken part of a flint knife. The other four jars were empty.

Image 1final
Finds from the Earthfast Jar Burial. Left: broken flint knife; Middle: broken bone pin: Right: Miniature Vessel. Image: R.Crellin with permission of MNH.


Bersu also identified two features that he referred to as ‘ustrinae’. Ustriane are a type of archaeological feature which are commonly found during the Bronze Age in Bersu’s home country of Germany. Ustrinae is the term used to refer to holes, dug into the ground over which pyres were built for the cremation of bodies. The features at Ballateare consisted of alternating layers of sand and sooty earth. Within the sooty earth there were pieces of ash and cremated bone. These features represent the actual location where the bodies of the dead were cremated. The alternating layers of sand and soot suggest that multiple cremation events occurred at this site. The cremated bones that were buried in the discrete deposits and within the Earthfast Jars do not contain any charcoal – as a result we think that people were cremating bodies within the ‘ustrinae’ and then picking out some of the remaining fragments of bone for deposition (more on this next week). It is also possible that the hollows with the sandy fill, the charcoal flecks, pieces of burnt bone and flint may also be made up of material taken from the ustrinae.

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One of the Earthfast Jars from Ballateare. The photo was taken during research at the Manx Museum in the 1940s. Image: MNH Archives


The site has no megalithic architecture (this is the case for all the Late Neolithic burial sites on the Isle of Man) but Bersu did find traces of postholes at the site. Postholes are the archaeological traces that we find indicating a post was once erected in this location. The postholes at Ballateare contain packing stones that would have helped to support the posts and hold them upright. They also show signs of re-cutting – this means that the holes themselves were dug multiple times. It is not clear whether the postholes at Ballateare were just posts that were placed at the site or whether they might have been connected together to form some kind of structure. Looking at the plan (below), the posts are highlighted in blue (Earthfast Jars are in red, cremations in orange, scoops in green and ustrinae in dark grey), and it does seem as if many of them are in a line running roughly east-west, and you could link up the ones outside the line to create a rectangle. Bersu did not find any evidence that made him think that these postholes were part of some kind of structure or building – it could be that they were just free-standing postholes or it could be that some of them were connected together by organic panels that were not sunk down into the earth and therefore left no archaeological traces.

Ballateare plan
Plan of the prehistoric excavation at Ballateare.  The location of the viking mound is indicated buy the thick grey dashed line (the black dashed line indicates the edges of the trenches. Postholes are in blue, Earthfast Jars in red, cremations in orange, scoops in green, and ustrinae in grey. Original plan: Bersu; digitisation: R.Crellin.


Next week I am going to talk about the results from Michelle’s osteological analysis of the bones from the site, the existing radiocarbon dates for the site and how we might interpret what was going on at Ballateare.


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