Ballateare – bones, dates and stories

Authors: Rachel and Michelle

Last time we introduced you to the prehistoric parts of Ballateare and in this blog we want to tell you about the dates that we currently have for the site, the results of Michelle’s osteological analyses of the site, and how we might interpret what was happening at Ballateare.

So there are two existing sets of dates for Ballateare. Some were done as part of the Billown project and there are some more that were funded by Culture Vannin as part of Rachel’s PhD research. The site broadly dates to the Late Neolithic. The Billown team were able to get two radiocarbon dates from small bits of carbon adhered to sherds of pottery from the site: 2834-2207 cal BC and 3010-2631 cal BC. These dates give us a general chronology for the site but they have quite wide date ranges. In the 2000s scientists developed a technique that allowed them to date cremated remains – this technique allows us to date specific remains from the site. Rachel had a sample of cremated bone from the Earthfast Jar dated but the sample failed (this happens when they cannot extract enough carbon from the cremated bone to get a date and is frustrating but not uncommon). Rachel also had one cremation from the general area of the site dated and one from the feature at the top of the plan. Cremation VII, from the main area of the site, dated to 2885-2634 cal BC. This date is firmly within the Late Neolithic.

Bersu referred to the feature (in purple on the plan) as a ‘foundation trench’ and there are two deposits of cremated remains from near this trench. The trench is a shallow feature, we know it extends beyond the area Bersu excavated, and we know that it filled in with soil fairly quickly. Rachel had one of these cremations dated, Cremation XVII, and it produced a date of 2266-2027cal BC – this means that this part of the site dates to the Earliest Bronze Age rather than the Late Neolithic. The deposit is contemporary with new practices such as placing inhumation burials with Food Vessels within cists (see the blogs on Bishopscourt Farm and Killeaba for more details). We will come back to thinking about these dates again shortly.

Ballateare plan
Plan of Ballateare with the different features in different colours. Image R.Crellin adapted from Bersu


Michelle analysed all the human remains from the site which were deposited with the museum. The cremated remains found within the Earthfast Jar represent just 1% of an adult skeleton. The bones are highly fragmented and broken up. The partial representation of the dead and high level of fragmentation of the remains seems to be common amongst the burials at the site. For example, cremation CVII – represents about 5% of an older adolescent or adult – these bones were buried within a small pit – they are highly fragmented but only lightly burned.

The bones from the pits are all only a small proportion of an individual and they are all highly fragmented. Cremation CIX – located near the cluster of Earthfast Jars was buried in a small pit and consists of about 15% of one individual who was either an adolescent or a small adult. These bones are also highly fragmented and burned at a lower temperature. The cremated remains from CIV were also buried in a small pit and again represent only about 5% of an older adolescent or perhaps an adult – these bones are highly fragmented but were burned at a high temperature. Again, the bones from cremation CV are highly fragmented but are also highly eroded and appear to be water-worn, these bones are less than 1% of the individual.

What can we tell from these kinds of results? It seems that the cremation of individuals in the Late Neolithic was quite variable with significant temperature differences between different cremation events. What does seem to be very common though is that only part of an individual was buried at the site and that the bones were very fragmented – they may even have been broken up on purpose. Rachel has published arguments before that have suggested that people continued to interact with the dead after cremation was complete in this period and that different parts of the dead were perhaps deposited in different places. She has argued that this might have been a way of extending relations between the living and the deceased and spreading their presence across the landscape. Some of Michelle’s findings could be used to support an argument like this given the fragmentation and partial representation of the dead.

It is also interesting that the carbon dates seem to suggest that the site continued to be important into the Early Bronze Age. When some people were adopting novel new ways of burying their dead others continued to bring them to Ballateare, a place with a deep history. Interestingly the burial C XVII for which we have an Early Bronze Age radiocarbon date is a little different to the other burials form the site, it consists of about 10% of the bones of a small child who probably died before they were two years old and about 45% of a small adult. The pair were buried together – perhaps they were related?

Ballateare is a fascinating site with Viking, Bronze Age and Neolithic history. Michelle’s work is helping to improve our knowledge of the site and when combined with some new radiocarbon dates we hope to be able to tell some new stories about the site.



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