NMI Burial Excavation Records


Sites and Monuments Record No.: SMR 9:62 Licence number:

Author: Barrie Hartwell, School of Archaeology and Palaeoecology, Queen's University, Belfast BT7 1NN.

Site type: Late Neolithic ritual timber circle enclosure and settings

ITM: E 732523m, N 867697m

Latitude, Longitude (decimal degrees): 54.540280, -5.951970

Since 1990 there have been nine seasons of excavation on this extensive Late Neolithic ceremonial site, all generously supported by the EHS and The Queen’s University of Belfast. The site, 100m by 70m in extent, sits on the top and northern slopes of a ridge overlooking the hengiform enclosure of the Giant’s Ring and passage tomb, 100m to the south. By 1997 the inner enclosure complex (BNH6), a portion of the outer enclosure (BNH5) and the northern section of the annexe attached to the east end of BNH5 had been excavated. Five cremation burials with passage grave affinities were found in the entrance area. The entrance to the complex was through the annexe, and this was found at a point halfway down the facade on the eastern side. This showed as a simple gap, 2m across, but with a more complex setting of posts within it. A series of east-west post-holes seemed to define a corridor or entrance chamber between the facade of the annexe and BNH5. The entrance to BNH5 was identified but only excavated to just below the plough zone.

The dating evidence centred around 2700 Cal. BC with the exception of one date that indicated that there was occupation in the area of BNH6 about 1000 years earlier.1999-2000 excavation
The excavation began on 2 August 1999 and lasted seven weeks; 103m2 of new ground was opened in addition to work continuing on the 320m2 open from previous seasons. A further week was taken in January 2000 to complete the excavation of the entrance to BNH5. The excavation concentrated on the central and southern parts of the annexe on the eastern side of BNH5 but also included the completion of excavation of the annexe facade north of the entrance. Some features were fully excavated, while others were surface-located by topsoil-stripping, cleaning and planning.

The entrance structure
Excavation started in the north section of the facade in 1996 and has been a particularly difficult task. A small baulk had been left towards the north end, and this was progressively trowelled down and recorded in 0.2m layers and along three section faces. The history of this feature seems to have been that a line of post-holes (c. 1.5m deep and at 1.4m intervals) was dug through an area of particularly mixed and contorted glacial till. These posts were later removed, and the post-moulds were filled with charcoal and stones. A second row of post-holes was then dug immediately to the east. These were massive (c. 2.4m in diameter and 2m deep) and so close together that they cut one another and removed most of the upper post-holes of the first phase. The moulds of the post-butts were visible at the base and were c. 1.4m in diameter. At least one of the posts probably had heart-rot. The posts, which were probably c. 6m high and spaced 0.1-0.2m apart, ran across the line of the ridge. A trench was later dug along the west side of the row, and the posts were pulled over and lifted out. This was then backfilled, and the post positions were marked by dumps of charcoal and stone. The facade post-holes therefore contained up to five different mixes of the original fill and two secondary fills. A third line of discrete posts was then constructed on the west side.

The sequence on the north side was only understood by work at the south end of the facade. Here no attempt was made to excavate in sections, but an area of 48m2 was taken down in three levels to a depth of 1m. At this point two of the third set of post-holes could be seen to clip the secondary fill of the second set and are therefore later. The second line in turn could be seen to cut the last post-hole of the first row, confirming its primary position.

After a short entrance gap the post-holes of the first phase of the facade continued south beyond the annexe, heading directly down the slope of the ridge towards the passage tomb in the centre of the Giant’s Ring. This was surface-traced in a series of shallow cuttings for 16m. One post-hole was fully excavated, but all showed a characteristic secondary fill of charcoal and stones. At one point the post-holes overlap, indicating that they were dug from the south to the north, possibly confirming the primacy of the passage tomb in the area.

Most work was in the area between the entrance, midway along the facade, and the gap in the outer enclosure (BNH5) due west of it. When this was combined with evidence from the 1992-7 excavations the full extent of the entrance chamber could be seen. It consisted of a square of post-holes (8m x 8m x c. 1.6m deep) with opposing gaps (1.6m across) midway along the east and west sides and in line with the entrance through the facade. Ten post-holes were fully excavated in the southern area, and three more on the north side. The line on the north side appears incomplete but is the result of the difficulty in identifying and fully excavating the features in previous seasons. Indeed one post-hole had been missed altogether, and the surface of another had been labelled as a hearth.

Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect was the critical relationship of the chamber to BNH5. The north-west corner of the chamber overlapped with one of the post-holes of the outer enclosure, but, although this area was recognised as being more complicated in 1992, the presence of the annexe and its related structures was not known. The second post was regarded as a replacement, and the second post-hole was not recognised, so the chronological relationship was not recorded.

Within the chamber were four posts, two on either side of the entrance passage, reflecting the four posts within the inner enclosure BNH6. These posts were all c. 1.8m deep and contained the typical secondary fill of charcoal and stone. The south-east post-hole also contained over 100 flint flakes in the upper part of the secondary fill. The four post-holes on the south side of the west end of the chamber all contained grooved ware in the primary fill. Grooved ware had previously been found in the primary fill of the post-holes on the north-east side and in the area of the annexe to the immediate north of the chamber.

There was evidence of a slot containing a line of three shallow posts connecting the east entrance of the chamber to the entrance in the facade. The easternmost post had been cut by the facade, possibly the secondary fill of the second phase, and therefore relates to the first or second line of facade posts. The chamber probably consisted of free-standing posts c. 4.5m high.

The relationship between the chamber and BNH5 was finally established in January 2000. This was a specialised entrance structure that accommodated the change in the direction of the passageway from the east-west orientation of the annexe to the east-south-east/west-north-west of the final approach to the inner enclosure BNH6. This entrance structure was laid out on the same geometry as the eastern setting and was defined by two slots that contained posts similar to those at the east entrance of the chamber.

The south side of the annexe
At the southern end of the facade a complex of post-holes was resolved into at least two differently orientated rows.

A double line of post-holes ran in an east-west orientation from the south end of the facade due west to BNH5. They contained a secondary fill of charcoal and stones but were larger and of a different spacing than the post-holes of the north side of the annexe. A post-hole from the east end was fully excavated, and the west end was surface-located where it ran against the arc of BNH5. Also visible at this point was a third, amorphous feature that can probably be associated with a third row of post-holes, visible in aerial photographs, running parallel to and on the south side of the double row of post-holes. The north side of the annexe also had a third row of outer post-holes at a wider interval.

Another double row of post-holes, c. 1.6m deep, articulated with the last two post-holes of the facade and ran in a west-north-west direction to BNH5. This was sampled in three places, with full excavation of five post-holes in the east and central zone and surface location at the west end. The last post-hole of this line cut a post-hole of the outer enclosure and is therefore later.

The east end of the east-west rows was accompanied by a charcoal-filled pit on its inner side (mirrored in a slighter way on the north side of the annexe), c. 0.6m deep. In character it was suggestive of a cremation pit. The charcoal was from a light wood source (e.g. brushwood) and contained flecks and small pieces of burnt bone. The bottom had been burnt, and lenses of burnt, sandy natural had, over time, collapsed from the sides into the charcoal, suggesting a series of fires. Only part of this feature was excavated, but wet sieving has produced large quantities of charred grain, some weed seeds and fragments of beads. The upper layers contained heat-cracked stones.

It has been established that the elaborate annexe is at least a three-phase structure. The first phase may be associated with the passage tomb complex at Ballynahatty, but the construction of the entrance chamber is certainly contemporary with or later than the grooved ware occupation. There may have been a major reorientation of the south side of the annexe early in the sequence, although this may have been part of the original concept. The posts of west-north-west orientation seem to delineate a clearly bounded cell on the south side of the entrance and are firmly attached and effectively perpendicular to the arc of BNH5. However, the line of the ridge would hide much of the west end of the west-north-west rows when viewed from the south. They are identical in character to the double line of post-holes that delimit the other cell on the north side of the entrance chamber.

The function of the east-west rows, which simply rest against the arc of the outer enclosure (BNH5) at the western end, seems to be purely cosmetic. These rows, which are double the length, crown the ridge to provide a false facade that would have dominated the important view from the south and made the BNH5 complex appear larger and even more impressive when viewed from the passage tomb in the Giant’s Ring.