1998:101 - BALLYMACAWARD, Donegal

NMI Burial Excavation Records

County: Donegal Site name: BALLYMACAWARD

Sites and Monuments Record No.: N/A Licence number: 97E0154

Author: Elizabeth O'Brien, 121 Barton Road East, Dundrum, Dublin 14.

Site type: Multi-period burial cairn: prehistoric/early medieval

ITM: E 584692m, N 862904m

Latitude, Longitude (decimal degrees): 54.514319, -8.236407

This monument was originally the subject of an investigative rescue excavation instigated by Dúchas The Heritage Service undertaken over a period of four weeks in May-June 1997 (Excavations 1997, 16). Following on from this a further season of excavation was undertaken for six weeks in May-June 1998 on an additional area, 80-90m east of the burial cairn. It was investigated because a geophysical survey had revealed anomalies suggestive of a possible destroyed circular enclosure.

Primary monument
The primary burial monument consists of a cairn, which was built around a natural rock outcrop by placing a layer of water-rolled boulders, similar to those found on the nearby beach, onto a sand-covering on the surface of the rock. The presence of uneven depressions (probable stone/boulder sockets) indicates the probability that the cairn-like structure also had a smaller cairn (now destroyed) on the summit. The presence in the cairn of a short cist of Bronze Age type (and a further destroyed example) implies that the monument was constructed in the Bronze Age. Over a period of about a millennium part of the monument became buried in sand and vegetation but was apparently still partially visible in the 2nd/1st century BC.

Excavation in 1998 revealed that this visible portion was augmented by the addition on the northern side of the mound of a level layer of stones interspersed with a mixture of charcoal and cremated bone and bounded by a low revetment. Also within this area were remains of a possible skull burial and one piece of cattle bone. The two small, bowl-shaped pits with cremated bone/ charcoal (dated to the 2nd/1st century BC) found near the summit of the mound in 1997 appear to be contemporary with this secondary extension.

A further slab-lined grave containing an extended inhumation was recovered, bringing to four (possibly five) the number of such graves (all female) that were inserted into the monument in the 5th century AD. The remaining seven extended inhumations in unprotected dug graves (also female), recovered in 1997, have been dated to the 7th century AD. It is a noticeable feature that all the burials avoid the central area, a further indication of the probable presence of a central small cairn.

It is concluded that, because of the important historical background to the area in which this monument lies, it represents a Bronze Age cairn that became an ancestral boundary ferta (burial place) into which burials were then inserted at crucial historic periods.

Secondary excavation
Three cuttings were inserted through areas of positive and dipolar anomalies, possibly indicative of an enclosure, as revealed by the geophysical survey, c. 80-90m west of the burial cairn. All three cuttings revealed layers of blown sand interspersed with thin layers of vegetation, below which iron panning, varying in density of discoloration, in sand was encountered. The water table was reached immediately beneath the iron panning at a depth of c. 1.2m. It was concluded that the positive anomalies may be the result of iron panning and that the dipolar anomalies probably represent a reservoir of underground water. There was no evidence of a man-made enclosure, but, as the area regularly becomes water-logged in wet seasons, this could result in the formation, over an extended period, of a depression that would have the surface appearance of a destroyed enclosure.