What do we know about the dig site?

 

Authors: Rachel and Chris

In case you haven’t heard we will be putting trowels to soil on July 2nd to start our excavation of what we hope to be a prehistoric burial mound at Cronk Guckley, just outside Kirk Michael.

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Two of the mounds at Cronk Guckley. Image: Rachel

 

So what do we know about Cronk Guckley – two of the three mounds at Cronk Guckley are shown on the 1860s map of the Isle of Man. P.M.C. Kermode noted in his 1930s catalogue of Manx sites that there were once three mounds on the hill but one of them had disappeared. There are some reports that urns might have been excavated from the site but these are later refuted in the records at the Manx Museum as being falsely associated with the site when really they came from somewhere else nearby.

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1860s map of the site showing two mounds (we don’t know why the surveyors did not spot the third mounds)

 

The mounds were listed in the database for Rachel’s PhD but until last summer we had not visited them. So, we (Chris and Rachel) went for a drive along the coast road between Peel and Kirk Michael and were easily able to spot the three mounds on top of a slight ridge from the road. In September last year, Michelle and Rachel went to visit the landowners and discuss with them whether they might grant their permission for us to carry out a geophysical survey at the site. Luckily for us the landowners like archaeology, and one of them is even a Newcastle University alumnus (!) so they were happy to let us take our equipment on site.

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LiDAR image showing the site – the mound on the far left (mound C) is the clearest and most round – whereas the mounds to the right (A and B) are more oval – we think this is the result of erosion.

 

We carried out a magnetometry survey as well as a ground penetrating radar survey and a 3D scan of the site. The mounds have been eroded and ploughed (we can see evidence of this in the LiDAR data) over the years, so they are smaller than they would have been. On the ground, and in the LIDAR data three mounds are clearly visible – we don’t understand why the records from the 1800s and 1930s suggest only two mounds remains.

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Magnetometry results from the site – you can see the high level of disturbance in the left of the image over the area covered by Mound C. Image: Kate Chapman, NAA.

 

Of the three mounds the one we call mound C is the easiest to identify. Mound C is round whereas mounds A and B are more oval, we think this is a result of hillwash erosion processes washing material downslope. Our magnetometry survey produced the best results and showed that mound C is likely to consist of re-deposited soil – as we would expect for a prehistoric round mound. The geophysics shows a strong response for this mound which indicates to us that the ground has been disturbed. This disturbance could date to when the mound was originally built, or it could indicate that an antiquarian dug into the mound (if this is true then we do not have any records for it). The results for the other two mounds are less clear – this doesn’t mean they are not mounds just that they might have been built differently, perhaps more quickly than mound C.

One of the things that makes archaeology so interesting is that we can do all kinds of geophysical surveys, we can look at old maps, aerial photographs and read everything written about a site – but – until we actually excavate it we still do not really know what it is! We think, and hope, that the site is a prehistoric burial site: all the evidence supports this. We reckon it probably dates to the Early Bronze Age on the basis of its size, form and location – but we won’t know until we start digging. We hope to be able to identify buried features within the mounds and to learn how the mounds were built and using what types of materials. If luck is with us we might even find the remains of those buried at the site.

Would you like to come and see the excavations?

We will be running site tours of the excavation at 3.30pm on Monday 3rd July; Tuesday 4th July; Thursday 6th; Friday 7th; Saturday 8th; Sunday 9th; Wednesday 12th; Thursday 13th; Friday 14th July. The site is up a hill so you will need to be able to make a short, but steep walk up hill to get to the dig. Booking a site tour is essential as the number of places on the tours are strictly limited and you will not be allowed on site without a booking: to find out more and book a slot please email digiom2017@gmail.com

Keep Reading!

If you can’t make it to the site then keep reading! We will be blogging about the dig over the coming weeks. We are planning lots of blogs from different members of the team that will give you details of the dig, how it progressed and what we found. Our aim is to give you a sense of the process behind carrying out an archaeological dig as well as what we found.

Announcing our 2017 dig!

Author: Rachel and Chris

We are very excited to reveal that we will be digging a prehistoric burial site on the island this July! We’ve been working hard since January to gain the necessary permissions, support, and funding to excavate and we are really pleased to say our hard work has paid off!

From July 2nd-15th we will be excavating a prehistoric burial site in the west of the island just outside Kirk Michael. The site – Cronk Guckley – consists of what we believe to be three Bronze Age burial mounds. We say believe as we can’t be certain until we’ve taken a trowel to them! The three mounds are located on the crest of a hill, with spectacular views across the coast and out to Ireland. We carried out geophysical surveys at the site last autumn and will be excavating one of the mounds. Watch out for a blog post later this week on how we identified the site and what our research so far has revealed.

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3D scanning at Cronk Guckley. Image: Chris.

We are bringing a small team of archaeologists from Newcastle University to the island who will take part in the excavation as part of their degree studies. We are also very pleased to be welcoming local volunteers on the dig. Contact us for more details.

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Ground Penetrating Radar at Cronk Guckley. Image: Rachel

The landowners and farmer at the site have been generous in granting their permission for us to dig and supporting the project – we are very grateful for this generosity. The dig is being supported by Manx National Heritage, and we are proud to be continuing to work with MNH on this project. We are also receiving support from the Isle of Man Steam Packet who are providing assistance with the costs of transporting the team and our equipment to the island. The dig would not be possible without all of this support and we want to extend our sincere thanks for it.

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Basic CMYK

Would you like to come and see the excavations?

We will be running free site tours of the excavation at 3.30pm on Monday 3rd July; Tuesday 4th July; Thursday 6th; Friday 7th; Saturday 8th; Sunday 9th; Wednesday 12th; Thursday 13th;  Friday 14th July. The site is up a hill so you will need to be able to make a short, but steep walk up hill to get to the dig. Booking a site tour is essential as the number of places on the tours are strictly limited and you will not be allowed on site without a booking: to find out more and book a slot please email digiom2017@gmail.com

Are you a teacher?

We are going to be running hands-on activity sessions in classrooms for primary schools. The sessions will tell the students a little about the dig and the site and give them a chance to have a go at being an archaeologist. For more information please email digiom2017@gmail.com

Keep Reading!

If you can’t make it to the site then keep reading! We will be blogging about the dig over the coming weeks. We are planning lots of blogs from different members of the team that will give you details of the dig, how it progressed and what we found. Our aim is to give you a sense of the process behind carrying out an archaeological dig as well as what we found.

Even more from the bones…

Author: Michelle

Last week I blogged about what we have learned from the osteological analyses so far. Research is not just about answering questions though, good research ends up posing even more questions than we began with. So, this week I want to talk a little about some of the new questions the osteology has led us to ask.

What questions did we raise?

If we understand, based on these analyses that there age and sex do not differentiate different burial practices, then what does? Is it simply changes in preference that have some individuals burned and buried in pots while others are burned and buried most likely in an organic receptacle? What dictates the change from cremation to inhumation? Why are cists used for both burned and unburned bones? Our biggest limiting factor for understanding more about the burial practices in the Neolithic and Bronze Age on the Isle of Man is that most of the graves were excavated in the end of 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, when the current scientific understanding didn’t permit much analysis of human skeletal material from archaeological contexts. This means that unfortunately, excavation records about the bones and their contexts are quite limited, if present at all. It also means that sometimes the human skeletal material was not kept for analysis. Therefore, a lot of questions about deposition and context have been raised by this osteological analysis, which really can only be answered with some well-recorded, modern excavations. Osteological questions include: When we have more than one individual in a grave, is there any way to stratigraphically determine if they are mixed together or were they deposited at different times? Was there re-use of a particular grave, or area? When we have an articulated skeleton, what position was it in? Is there any evidence for organic wrappings of the body? With a larger sample, are there any patterns which can be perceived based on age or sex, in terms of burial contexts, or health issues?

IMAGE 1All identified vertebrae from The Cronk Upper Lherg Cist 1
Vertebrae from The Cronk, Upper Lherghydhoo

 

While radiocarbon dating can give us some answers regarding chronology and timing of the various deposits, it is not precise enough to determine if there is subsequent deposition within a short period of time (let’s say seasonally within a year)… but stratigraphy can help us un-pick these details. As can, paying close attention to aspects of the taphonomic processes which have effected the skeletal material… for example: is there noticeable water action in the burial? Have animals or plants disturbed the skeleton (little rodents love carting away small bones like fingers to their nests)? What position is the skull in, in relation to the first and second cervical vertebrae? Is there evidence of re-opening of a cist? Was it filled in with dirt after the body was deposited, or was it left open with a cap stone?

So how can we go about answering the new questions we have created? More excavation, with a good and targeted methodology will certainly help, particularly paying close attention to the skeletal material within the grave. As well, some of the skeletal material has been set aside as samples for radiocarbon dating, stable isotope analyses, and aDNA analysis. Unfortunately cremated bone cannot be tested for isotopes or DNA, so it falls to the 6 unburned skeletons to bear the majority of the testing. Samples from this small group with hopefully be able to provide us with an idea of diet (through carbon and nitrogen analyses), regional mobility (through oxygen and strontium analyses), and genetic connections (through ancient DNA analyses).

IMAGE2Small bead from West Kimmeragh Boulder Cist found in cremation
Small bead from West Kimmeragh Boulder Cist found within the cremated bones. Image: Michelle

 

Overall, what we have learned about the Manx people from the past is still developing as we continue to connect the biological data with the material culture and contextual information. In terms of the archaeological process when looking at mortuary features, the osteological information provides some of the key criteria needed to understand funerary practices in the past. We can look at questions regarding differences or similarities based on age or sex, or look at whether disease or disability may have been prevalent and had an impact on burial. The analysis of the prehistoric skeletal material from the Isle of Man will be comparable to skeletal analyses from England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland and will contribute to the understanding of the prehistoric periods across the British Isles.

More from the bones…

Author: Michelle

Rachel has very kindly offered to let me write another two posts about osteology for the blog. Last time I took you through the basic steps of an osteological analysis, and some of the issues with working with primarily cremated skeletal material. So this time, I will try and show you some of the results of the analyses of the Manx Neolithic and Bronze Age bones. Rachel has been doing a really good job of going through the sites and giving an excellent overview of the excavations and results of the bone analyses and of the re-assessments that she and Chris have been putting together. I really recommend, if you haven’t had a chance yet, to go back through and read some of these posts, it will really give you a good idea of the kinds of sites which were included in the study and what archaeology has been done to-date on the island regarding the prehistoric monuments.

For now, I will give you an idea of what we looked at and some of the finds which were discovered with the bones, and hopefully, with analyses ongoing this year, we can create a complete inventory and synthetic report of all the human skeletal material from the Bronze Age and Neolithic periods on the Isle of Man. Overall, I was able to identify a minimum of 60 individuals from 28 sites across the island. Cremation seems to be the main method of processing a body in the Neolithic and Bronze Age on the Isle of Man. This is likely because cremation was the preferred practice, but it has to be considered that the acidic soil of Man is very bad for bone preservation and perhaps the bones which weren’t burned simply didn’t survive as well. The remains of 44 cremations and 7 unburnt contexts were examined. Amongst this collection, 30 of these individuals were identified as adults and 13 as infants, children or adolescents (it was not possible to determine the age-at-death for the remains in 17 cases). The large number of cremations and poor preservation of the bones made determining the sex of the skeletons difficult; however, it was possible to identify 5 probable males and 9 probable females.

IMAGE 1Strandhall unburned teeth of subadult
Unburned teeth from Strandhall. Image: Michelle

 

What questions did we answer?

This is a tough one as we are still processing some of the data, but in general terms, we have learned that neither age nor sex determined whether an individual was cremated or not, as we have children of various ages and adults of both sex. We can say that there were different methods of depositing cremated remains in the prehistoric periods – sometimes in pots, sometimes just in pits, sometimes they were left on the cremation pyre as at Ballafayle. As Rachel has described earlier, the sites all date to the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods and cremation and inhumation were both practiced. As well, we can now say that children and adults of both sexes were deposited in a variety of methods across these prehistoric periods. We already knew that there were cremation cemeteries, like that a Ballateare, but now we know that both adults and children were deposited within this type of environment. We can say with certainty that some objects were burned with the individual in some cases, and we can start discussing what these objects may indicate for that individual.

The bone pommel from Staarvey has had some attention in a previous blog post by Chris and Rachel, but other cremations also contained objects; mainly small pieces, often of bone, such a beads or toggles, pins or needles, and stones or flints and pottery. Sometimes these objects were burned and sometimes not, indicating they were not pulled from the pyre with the skeletal material, but added afterwards.

IMAGE 2Tip of a bone pin from The Cronk Upper Lherghydhoo Cist 1
Tip of a bone pin from The Cronk Upper Lherghydhoo. Image: Michelle

 

In terms of the burial practices, since many of the cremations did not contain much charcoal, it seems likely that the bones which were buried in these discrete deposits are what could be collected from a pyre in a different location. This can have a significant effect on the size of the fragments of bone, as their method of collection and re-deposition can impact their preservation. Bones which are raked or disturbed while still hot will fragment to a greater degree than those which are cool. Some of the cremation deposits include a significant amount of small parts of the body, such as tooth roots or finger bones, while others don’t. The inclusion of these small bones reflects careful and comprehensive collection of the skeletal material from the pyre to the secondary vessel (be it organic or ceramic). When the cremation deposit contains only the partial remains of an individual there are several possible reasons for this: the collection of the skeletal material from the pyre was incomplete, either deliberately or accidently; the cremation deposit excavated may represent one of several for a single individual who was buried across several deposits; the lack of a substantial container for the remains allowed taphonomic and environmental processes to remove some of the material; or, given the excavation methods of earlier periods, some of the skeletal material was not recovered or retained. Unfortunately, there is no way to determine which of these situations may be the cause of a partial cremation burial. Further excavation with modern methods could shed some light on this, and at least rule out excavation methodology as a cause for missing material.

IMAGE 3Sciatic notch from Knocksharry inhumation indicating a probable female.jpg
Sciatic notch on the skeleton from Knocksharry – indicates this individual was probably female. Image: Michelle

 

Typically, unburned bones will be able to provide more information regarding age and sex, stature, health and disease for past populations. However, with the prehistoric Manx material we can only talk about the unburned bones to a limited extent, as we have a small sample group of 6 individuals. Of these 6 individuals, only one was a subadult – a child aged 9-12 years at death, 3 were young adults (aged 18-35 years at death), 1 was an adult aged 35-40 years at death, and the final one could not be assigned an age estimation. Since sex cannot be determined for children, of the 5 adults, 2 were probable males and 1 was a probable female, while sex could not be determined for the other 2. What this tells us, with this small sample, is that like with the cremations, neither age nor sex seems to indicate burial practice. Unfortunately, one of the unburned individuals, a young adult, probable female, has been previously radiocarbon dated to the Medieval period and therefore does not contribute to our understanding of the prehistoric periods on Man.

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Alveolar Recession on the jaw of the skeleton from Port St Mary. Image: Michelle

 

The palaeopathological analysis was hampered by the heavy fragmentation of the cremated material and the very poor preservation of the unburned skeletal material. Of the unburned skeletal material, two of the young adults displayed evidence of dental disease with alveolar recession (this is the recession of the alveolar bone which holds the tooth in place, and is associated with periodontal disease like gingivitis), calculus (mineralised tartar deposits) and in one case, evidence of physiological stress in childhood with grooves in the enamel where enamel formation had been effected by the nutritional or physical stress as the tooth was developing. From the cremated remains, the types of skeletal changes which can be observed are more limited, and tend to be based on changes which involve bone growth or non-metric traits. For example, at several sites osteophytes (small projecting bone growths) can be seen on spine or long bone joint fragments, indicating osteoarthritic changes. In one case from Killeaba (CV), a young, probable female, adult displayed two different cranial non-metric traits – with at least one extrasutural bone (an extra bone within a cranial suture) and a parietal foramen(a hole through the parietal bone, typically near the sagittal suture at the top of the head). Neither of these traits would have been felt or had an impact on the individual. Interestingly, this young female was buried with an infant aged 6-12 months at death. Non-metric traits can be used to help identify genetic ties between individuals, but unfortunately only a small amount of the infant skeleton was present.

IMAGE 5Occipital fragments from Killeaba CV - extrasutural bone at top of photo
Occipital fragments from Killeaba. Image: Michelle

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.

 

A guide to the archaeological sites of the Isle of Man – a new Manx archaeology guidebook

Author: Rachel

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Image from Culture Vannin website

 

Last month a brilliant new guide to the prehistoric sites of the island was published. It is written by the two archaeology curators from MNH – Andrew Johnson and Allison Fox. We are lucky enough to get to work with Andy and Allison regularly and take advantage of their great knowledge of the archaeology of the island.

The pocket-size book has details on all kinds of archaeological sites from the Bronze Age burials you read about in our blog to Iron Age hillforts, carved crosses, parish churches, and castles. The book is in full colour and there are details of how to get to each site with location maps and access information. The book also has an excellent overview of Manx archaeology from Dr Peter Davey an expert in the subject.

If you enjoy our blog and want to get out and experience the archaeology of the island yourself then we reckon this new book will be a good investment.

Details here: http://www.culturevannin.im/publication_476213.html

 

 

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.

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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.