Cup Marks II

Author: Rachel

In the last blog I introduced cup marks – a form of prehistoric rock art. This week I want to explore the cup marks that we have on the Isle of Man. We have a good few examples of cup marks on the island some of which are combined into monuments, some of which are found at burial sites, and some of which are open air panels. To date all the cup mark sites we have found consist only of simple cups (rather than the concentric rings and radial lines that were visible in some of the photos from Northumberland last week).

The biggest spread of cup marks can be found over the Meayll peninsular – that is the area between the Calf Sound and Cregneash – which is accessible via the coastal footpath. There are a large number of different panels spread across this area (some of which are not accessible and others are). We know of at least 14 different ‘sites’ with panels in this area following a survey in 1994 and 1995 by the Centre for Manx Studies (there is a summary published by Jenny Woodcock in the journal of Isle of Man Studies from 2016).

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Map showing the location of cup-marked panels over the Meayll Peninsular. Image from Woodcock, 2016. Map Crown Copyright

Lots of the cup marks are on the high ground around Conk Mooar but those that are perhaps most easily accessible are within the promontory fort of Burroo Ned. The promontory fort, defined by the big bank that runs across the cliff, is later in date (Iron Age) than the cup marks. Across the whole of the peninsular the cup marks are all on rock faces that have stunning views out to sea, often south towards the Calf of Man and the Sound.


Panel on the Meayll Peninsular (Site 5 in Woodcock, 2016). Image: Rachel
The view from the rock art panel at Site 5. Image: Rachel

Another panel that is particularly easy to visit is built into the sea wall at Niarbyll. The cup marks are facing upwards near the end of the sea wall, sometimes they might be filled with pebbles/debris that makes them hard to spot! There are at least 22 cup marks, arranged in 3 rows on this rock and they are well formed. We know that the rock was moved to the site and built into the wall but we don’t know when it was moved or where it came from. I was lucky enough to get the chance to take archaeologists Andy Jones, Hannah Sackett and Marta Diaz-Guardamino to visit this piece of rock art (and lots of other sites). Andy and Marta have been researching prehistoric art across Britain and Ireland over the past few years with great effect (we published a paper together on the ‘Ronaldsway plaques – decorated pieces of slate from the Late Neolithic). Marta carried out Reflectance Transformation Imaging (abbreviated to RTI) on the rock. RTI works by taking numerous photos of the rock art from the same position, but moving the light source in each photo. The images are then analysed by a computer and we are then able to manipulate the light in a composite image that makes it possible to see differences in surface texture and shape that are not perceptible to the naked eye. Below are some of the amazing image Marta took.

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The Niarbyl panel. Image: Marta Diaz-Guardamino

In the next blog we will explore cup marks are burial sites on the island


Cup Marks

Author: Rachel

This week the blog is going to discuss cup marks. Avid blog followers might remember that we mentioned cup-marks when we discussed the Bronze Age Burial Site: The Cronk Upper Lherghydhoo. At this site a Bronze Age Cordoned Urn burial, containing cremated remains, was found to have been placed on top of a cup-marked slate slap.

Cup marks are a kind of prehistoric rock art – they consist (in their simplest form) of small hollows carved into the surface of rocks. We find them outcropping in the landscape but we also often find cup-marked rocks incorporated into the architecture of other prehistoric sites. One particularly common place to find them is on the rock panels that make up the sides of a cist. Indeed, one of the sides of the miniature cist which we recovered this summer from our dig had a cup mark on its outer edge.


Spot the Cup Mark from the side of our cist! Images: Rachel

Cup Marks are usually a few centimetres across and are pecked into the rock. The concave depressions may be found alongside concentric rings, radial lines, channels and cracks. They are referred to as a form of rock art as they decorate the surfaces of outcropping rocks though they do not form the kind of ‘picture’ we might readily associate with the term ‘art’. Cup marks are found across the British Isles and more widely through Atlantic Europe.

A Cup Marked panel from Northumberland. The lichen makes it hard to see but you should be able to spot lots of small hollows when you get your eye in and even a more complex design in the lower right of the image. Image: Michelle

Archaeologists have excavated around some cup-marked rock panels in Scotland in Kilmartin Glen and Ben Lawer and in Northumberland at Hunterhaugh Crag. The excavations have revealing evidence for the production of these marks. In Kilmartin Glen excavation recovered evidence of quartz hammerstones which had been used to make the marks.

Hopefully now you have your eye in and can spot the cup marks. Image: Michelle

There are a few tricky things about studying cup-marks – firstly it can sometimes be hard to distinguish between a cup-mark carved by people and hollows that form through natural geological processes. Secondly, their abstract form can make them hard to spot. Thirdly, they can be very hard to date – we most commonly find them on open air panels where there is little that we can use to assign a date to their creation. When we can date their creation in open air panels we still cannot necessarily tell for how long they remained in use. When we find them included within the architecture of monuments, burial mounds, and cists we can date their association with the site but it is very hard to tell whether they were made specifically for use in the burial, or whether they could have been quarried from an open site elsewhere and potentially be much older than the site they are included within. Generally speaking, most archaeologists think that cup marks were created between the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age.

Cup Marked panel on the Isle of Man – more about the Manx cup marks coming in the next blog! Image: David Horan

The abstract form of cup marks means that debate about their ‘function’ can be quite varied and that they attract all kinds of interpretations of their ‘meaning’. One of the aspects of research that I find most interesting about cup marks focuses on the way that decoration of the surface ties into natural rock features. Work in Kilmartin Glen has shown that cup marks were often placed specifically so that they would be ‘framed’ by geological fissures and cracks in the rock.

In the next blog I’ll focus specifically on the cup marks known from the Isle of Man and like the one we found last summer.

Manx National Heritage – Heritage Walks

Author: Rachel

Just a very brief blog from me today – I wanted to highlight some upcoming events run by Manx National Heritage for those readers on the Isle of Man. Throughout March they are running a series of weekend Heritage walks around Cregneash and the surrounding area. The area itself is stunningly beautiful and has an incredibly rich history including not only the cummals (Manx for home), but also the farming landscape, and World War II archaeology. The weekend walks will explore this rich and varied history – there is a walk focusing on the RAF radar station from World War II (3rd March), one on the cummals (18th March) and one on the wildlife and farming history (10th March). From our perspective though the most exciting is on Sunday 4th March when Dr Andrew Foxon will be leading a walk around the Meayll Circle (follow this link to read our blog about the site). Andrew is a wonderful speaker and a real expert: this is sure to be an engaging afternoon. Follow this link for more information.


Meayll Circle

Author: Rachel

This week the blog is going to be about the Meayll Circle – my favourite archaeological site on the island! My copy of the new Megaliths book (see last week’s blog) has arrived so, with it in hand I wanted to write about the Meayll (also referred to as Mull Circle). One of the great things about the book is that it has lots of the previously unpublished plans, diagrams and photographs of the sites in it. These are the kinds of things we go into the museum archives specifically to see as they often shed new light on a site and now they are all on show in the new book.

Image: Rachel

The Meayll Circle has never been completely excavated but there were excavations at the site by Kermode and Herman in 1893 and again in 1911. Their photographs, plans and records from the excavation show that the site was already quite disturbed by the time their work began. There was a further excavation at the site by Audrey Henshall in 1971.

So, your first question, if you have visited the site and follow this blog might well be: is it a round mound? And the answer to that is a definitive yes, the site is very clearly round in plan and it was once built up much higher with rubbly cairn material to form a clear mound. Much of the material that built up the height of the mound has since been robbed out and nowadays the chambers stand tall above the current ground surface and the centre of the mound is covered in turf and heather.

Note the ‘T’ shaped chambers. Image: Rachel

The site consists of a round cairn containing six short passages (all less than 2m in length) which lead into six chambers. The chambers lead off from the passage to both the left and right. In plan this gives the chambers and passages a ‘T’ shape. The arrangement of six radial passages and chambers is unique and makes the site enigmatic from an archaeological perspective.

To imagine the site as it was once constructed we almost certainly need to imagine roof lintels covering the top of the passages and chambers, and then rubbly cairn material built up to at least this height, if not taller (Frances Lynch and Peter Davey estimate a height of at least 1.22m if not taller).

More detail of the chambers. Image: Rachel

In the 1971 excavations Henshall uncovered a:

“…well-built wall face was found about 1.52m in front of the chambers. Standing nearly 0.61m high in six thin courses” (Lynch and Davey, 2017: 59).

This wall, which is visible in a few places is suggested to be a kind of revetment to stop the cairn material slumping downward. In front of this walling there was evidence of numerous slabs of slate, as well as a layer of rounded stones reaching out from the central mound. Lynch and Davey suggest this layer of rock was not the result of slumpage but was deliberately placed in front of the wall and that in the past, based on various excavation reports, the entrances to the chambers would have been blocked by this material. It seems there were several stages of activity at the site.

As part of the 1911 excavations a thin trench was dug right through the middle of the site revealing the mass of cairn material in the centre. In addition the excavators suggest that they found quartz blocks and perhaps some evidence of central cists in the middle of the mound – this information is treated with extreme caution by archaeologists as the reporting is unclear and there is no way to be certain whether it is true or not at present.

Image: Rachel

A number of finds have been recovered from within the chambers including flint flakes, arrowheads and knives, sherds of Neolithic pottery, charcoal and cremated bones. These bones sadly never made it to the museum so we have not been able to get Michelle to examine them.

One of the reasons I love this site is its stunning location (evident in these photos from one of my many visits). It is located on a kind of shelf on the side of Meayll Hill that gives it amazing views of Port Erin, Colby, Port St Mary and Castletown below and even out along the west coast all the way to Peel if it is clear, and across to Ireland on a very clear day. This location is no accident and we can assume that the people that built the site selected the location for the same reason that many people love the site today.

Chamber in the foreground, in the far background you can see the gap in the hills that allows you to see up towards Peel on a very clear day. Image: Rachel

New Book: Chambered Tombs of the Isle of Man

Author: Rachel

Happy New Year to all our readers!

We have been busy over the past few weeks putting together our  application for another season of excavation in 2018. This has involved lots of planning – thinking about what we want to do and how we want to do it. We are hoping to have news by Easter about our plans for the summer.

This week I want to alert you all to a new book that has been published: Chambered Tombs of the Isle of Man.


This new book has been a long time coming – work began on the book in the 1960s by Audrey Henshall. Henshall is one of the leading experts on the megaliths of Britain and Ireland. She worked at the National Museum of Scotland between 1960 and 1971 and has an OBE for her services to archaeology. She has carried out studies of a great many of the British megaliths and wanted to add the Manx megaliths to her work. Henshall’s text for the book has been edited and updated by Frances Lynch and Peter Davey. Frances Lynch is a prehistorian with a specialism in Wales and the west of the Britain, she has published extensively on the prehistory of Wales and Anglesey (amongst many other subjects!). Peter Davey was the director of the Centre for Manx Studies and is an expert on all things Manx (he also gave me my first archaeological job!).

The book is a comprehensive guide to the megalithic sites of the island with details of the excavations at them, plans of the sites and studies of the finds from the excavations. The appendix of the book provides  reports for the previously unpublished excavations at King Orry’s Grave and Ballaharra. The Round Mounds team are really eager to read this new book and in particular to see the reports for both King Orry’s Grave and Ballharra published. Michelle has examined the bones from some of these sites and part of Chris’ PhD focused on the megalithic sites of the Manx Neolithic. I ordered my copy at a conference just before Christmas and am hoping it will appear in the next week!

You can order copies direct from the publisher by clicking here. 


Drawing Together Archaeological Evidence and Osteological Data

Author: Michelle

In the last blog post, I gave a bit of the background about the theoretical framework that I work within to gain as much information as we can from the osteological material by placing it at the centre of questions regarding burial and funerary practices, as well as understanding as much as we can about the lives and lifeways of the individuals. This bioarchaeological approach requires the best contextual information that we can gather.

Within the Round Mounds of the Isle of Man project, we have looked at a wide variety of sites (many of which Rachel has presented here on the blog), which were excavated over the course of the last 250 years. Port St Mary, Rushen is the earliest excavation that we have looked at, initially excavated in 1888 by Swinnerton (‘The Early Neolithic Cists and Refuse Heap at Port St Mary’ in Yn Lioar Manninagh). Unfortunately, the earliest of these remains could not be located (this is not uncommon from sites which were explored in the 19th century, with anthropological techniques still developing, many people did not see the value in retaining fragmented or post-cranial (any bones below the skull) bones). There was, however, a skull and small fragments of post-cranial bone, from the 1894 excavation at the same location. These bones belonged to a single adult male individual aged 20-35 years at death, and were un-burned. The most recently excavated bones, are those from our very own Cronk Gluckley, Berk Farm, just this year! As I am sure you have seen from Rachel’s many posts on the subject, excavation and recording has changed significantly!

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Port St Mary Skull. Image: Michelle


In order to provide as much detail about the burial and site as possible, we need to access a variety of sources. Now I was lucky on this project, Rachel did a HUGE amount of background research to provide me with as much information about the excavation as possible. So where did she look? Well, lucky for us, the Library at the Manx Museum is wonderfully equipped with much of the archival information that we needed. Here we were able to find official excavation records, diaries and letters from excavators, accession cards and museum records on objects and artefacts associated with a site, not to mention the publications in the local periodicals related to the sites. The Isle of Man has a wonderful resource in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries and Natural History of the Isle of Man and its earlier incarnate, Yn Lioar Manninagh.

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Storage Box from the Manx Museum. Image: Michelle


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Archive Card from Port St Mary from the Manx National Heritage, Monunment and Historic Environment Record. Image: Michelle


Sometimes, given the antiquity of the excavation, we can still struggle to place the remains that are within the museum stores, with a specific burial at a site. There can be several reasons for this, first of all, (and this can still happen today), the object identification in the publication does not match the object identification with the material in the store. This is more easily resolved with an artefact than a bag of bones, as one bag of bones looks much like another. Secondly, the site records may include multiple locations for bones, but there is only one box of bones within the stores and it does not include anything more than a site name. Thirdly, the remains within the store may have been previously studied or sampled and have been mixed or mis-placed. So, sometimes we have to do a little detective work to re-unite a set of bones with its burial location. This is done based on detailed readings of the excavation records and with the help of Rachel and Chris, who have incredible depth of understanding of these sites. I will say that it is a feeling of great success when you can comfortably associate a collection of skeletal material with their context!

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Part of the excavation record from The Boranne, The Lag, Dalby. Part of the MNH Archives. Image: Michelle

The Round Mounds project has provided us the opportunity to do this at a number of sites. With help and support from Culture Vannin and the Manx National Heritage, we are have placed the bones within their context. This would not have been possible if those at the Manx Museum hadn’t done such a wonderful job of curating objects and records.

Manx Museum. Image: Michelle

Bioarchaeology on the Isle of Man

Author: Michelle

Hello! Michelle here again to share with you a bit more about the osteology and what kind of work we’re doing here with the Round Mounds project. You may remember from previous osteo posts that I have taken you through the process of assessment and some of the results of the initial assessment, so I thought now I would take you through some of the theory and practice which directs what we are doing here with the Manx bones. There are many different ways to approach archaeologically derived human remains, this is why I strongly believe in co-operative work and sharing resources, and why one of the important parts of this project is the creation of an osteological database for the Manx Museum. By generating basic inventories for this project and lodging them at the Manx Museum, it provides a jumping off point for future researchers who may want to approach the skeletal material with different research questions. In the long run the data is also being lodged with the Archaeological Data Service so that other archaeologists can access it online.

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Datasheet from the research. Image: Michelle


In previous posts, we have gone through some of the questions we can and are asking of this skeletal material, but how are these constructed? To understand this, a bit of history helps (if you want more history on the evolution of this stream of science, Buikstra and Roberts (2012) The Global History of Paleopathology or Buikstra and Beck (2006) Bioarchaeology: The contextual analysis of human remains  are good starting points).

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The analysis of human remains in archaeology has a very long history, rooted in the various anthropological disciplines, and more specifically Physical Anthropology. This discipline studies the biological aspects of humans and their evolution, including our primate relatives and early hominid species. It is also known as Biological Anthropology, and is based around the collection of metric and non-metric data from humans and primates, exploring things like growth, development and evolution. It is within these principles of data collection that we get the scales of assessment I mentioned in an earlier post, to evaluate the age-at-death or biological sex of an individual.

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Measuring the bones. Image: Chris


There are many different streams of research which use human remains from the past to explore questions about the past, whether it be far back or more recent. Depending on where you are in the world, you will hear different terms used, and each has a slightly different meaning. Biological Anthropology is now more or less equated with Physical Anthropology, and as noted above, uses biological data to discuss questions of human evolution and development. Bioarchaeology, is the methodological framework which I work within to try and answer questions about the prehistoric people on the Isle of Man.

In the first osteo blog post I defined what osteology is (study of bones) and what the bioarchaeological framework is and how we apply it to the study of past human remains. I will expand a bit on that here. Bioarchaeology, as a term is a bit contentious within archaeological circles, as in many places it is taken as it was originally intended, to encompass the study of all biological material from archaeological contexts. This means, it also includes faunal (animal, bird, and fish bones) and botanical (plant seeds, textiles, pollens, and any other plant-based remains) research. However, in the late 1970s in the U.S., the term bioarchaeology was re-defined and places human remains in the centre of exploring cultural-historical questions about the past. It focuses on human osteology (study of bones) and palaeopathology (study of past suffering/disease), alongside material culture (artefact analysis), zooarchaeology (animal bones), archaeobotany (plant remains) and contextual research to answer problem-oriented questions about the past. For example, this means that we are no longer asking, ‘how tall were people in Bronze Age Isle of Man?’; we are asking, ‘what can the estimated stature of individuals from Bronze Age Isle of Man tell us about their general health status?’ Or, ‘what are the implications of the estimated stature of individuals from Bronze Age Isle of Man in regards to child rearing and health?’ We now want to explore, as much as possible, the life and lifeways of individuals in the past.

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One of the Killeaba cists displayed at the Manx Museum. Image: Michelle


I have to say here, this does not mean that we don’t still need to focus on our methods of biological analysis. There is still a long way to go in regards to clarifying and refining the currently accepted scales we apply to the skeletal material. The methods of age assessment, sex determination and stature estimation are constantly being up-dated and refined for different populations. Dedicated researchers use collections where the individuals within the collection have a known age-at-death, and sometimes even the medical records are known. These collections provide an invaluable resource for those in forensics (science used for the detection of crime), forensic anthropology (physical anthropology applied to a legal setting), medical anthropology (study of health, disease and medicine), not to mention bioarchaeologists.

So what does this mean for our work on the Isle of Man? Well, both Chris and Rachel are well-known and strong theoretical archaeologists, meaning that they apply various philosophical theories and methods to archaeological material to draw a more in-depth understanding of human actions and motivations in the past. As the bioarchaeologist, I can contribute to their discussion of burial practices (the actions around the burying of the bones), funerary practices (the actions prior to, and including, the burying of the individual), and population demographics. When we know more about the people that were buried, where they were buried, and how they were buried, we can start to think about why they were buried in a particular manner or place or with certain objects. Therefore, by incorporating the biological data into the archaeological context, as best I can (some of the excavations were done in the 19th century!), we can gain a greater understanding of the Neolithic and Bronze Age populations.

King Orry’s Grave. Image: Michelle

If you like Human Osteology and Bioarchaeology, I can recommend these great blogs:

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