Ballynahatty is a townland (a subset of a parish) located 5 miles to the south of Belfast city centre in the Lagan valley. It has long been known for the Giant’s Ring, a late Neolithic henge monument and the largest prehistoric ceremonial enclosure on the island of Ireland. With a diameter of 180m (590ft), the circular earthwork encloses an area measuring 2.8ha (7 acres), with a bank that rises to 3.6m (12ft) in places.
At the centre of the ring lie the truncated remains of a passage grave, described by mid-19th-century antiquaries as a Druidic altar where (according to J B Doyle in Tours in Ulster, 1854): ‘many thousands may have assembled to witness the awful rites of their sanguinary religion; and where no objects could attract their attention from the priest, the huge altar stone, the human sacrifices, and the glorious luminary [the sun] that formed the principal object of their adoration’.
The remains of a woman were discovered in 1855 (not long after Doyle’s imaginative account) in what we now know is a much-truncated, single-chambered passage tomb, located in a field to the north-west of the henge. Her remains have been radiocarbon dated to 3343-3020 cal BC and her genome, sequenced in 2015 (and published in PNAS; see doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1518445113), indicates ancestry from early Near Eastern farmers as well as close affinity with the south-west Mediterranean (e.g. Spain or Portugal). She may well have migrated to Ireland from the Continent as part of a group of farmers seeking new lands to cultivate, and thus might have been regarded by those who built her tomb as an ancestor of the resulting Neolithic community.
Surrounding the henge is a monument-rich landscape consisting of an undulating plateau some 100ha in extent, lying at 40m above datum; this falls away steeply to some 5m in the west, south, and east, but is overlooked by higher hills to the north. Aerial photography, ground survey, and geophysical surveys have revealed numerous postholes, barrows, cists, enclosures, ring ditches, standing stones, and either a trackway or a rare example in Ireland of a cursus. Bringing all this evidence together with the finds from various excavations – scientific and otherwise – and from fieldwalking, reveals a remarkably detailed picture of a mortuary landscape that had developed over a 2,000-year period, spanning the Neolithic and Bronze Age.
Clues in the cropmarks
During aerial survey work in the dry summer of 1989, intriguing cropmarks began to emerge in a field of barley on top of an east–west ridge, about 100m to the north of the Giant’s Ring henge. Made up of substantial postholes, this consisted of a small enclosure (BNH6) located within a much larger one (BNH5). The site was excavated between 1990 and 2000 by archaeology students at Queen’s University Belfast, supplemented by local sixth formers and volunteers from other universities as well as the Ulster Archaeological Society. Work largely focused on the smaller enclosure and the south-eastern quadrant of the larger one, whose interior still remains largely unexplored.
Excavating and interpreting the site was challenging. Cultivation had removed any stratigraphic evidence that might have provided clues to phasing or relationships between the various post pits that made up the main features of the site. Though these were very large, the post pits were up to 2.2m (7ft) deep, wide at the surface, but narrowed towards the base so that, in the restricted space, it was far from easy to section and excavate the pits once a depth of 0.6m (2ft) had been reached.
Burnt human remains and animal bone were widespread but unstratified across the site, disturbed by the plough. Cultivation had, though, spared several small cremation deposits and part of a small chambered tomb, which contained Coarse Ware sherds from one or more cremation urns along with cremated human remains. This tomb had been cut near one of the post pits, and the Neolithic builders of the large enclosure had carefully moved the urns from a central place to a position where they would not be crushed when the post was inserted.
The smaller feature, BNH6, was defined by a double line of large pits, enclosing a circle with a diameter that varied from 14.5m and 16m (48ft and 52ft). The inner ring of 25 posts and the outer ring of 33 posts were spaced at precise intervals of 1.6m (5ft). They enclosed a central setting of four very large posts set around 14 smaller posts set out at equal intervals to form a square, which was interpreted as the support for a raised platform.
The four main postholes standing sentinel at the corners of the platform, but separate from it, had depths of 2.4m (8ft) and diameters of 1m (39in) at the surface, tapering to 0.5m (20in) at the base. On the assumption that the posthole depth represents one third of the original post size, this indicates a timber 7.2m (24ft) in length, of which the upper 4.8m (16ft) would be visible above the soil surface (the loss of the topsoil to ploughing means that we cannot know the true depth of the postholes, so these are minimum heights).
These posts would have risen higher than any of the other substantial posts making up the surrounding enclosure, thus marking the ceremonial centre of the complex and perhaps metaphorically pointing to the sky after the manner of a church steeple. Again, on the basis of posthole depth, the enclosure posts typically stood at least 4m (13ft) above the surface. Unsurprisingly, each post pit had substantial ramps radiating outwards, thus indicating the side from which the post had been inserted into the top of the pit and raised using ropes before the post pit was backfilled with rammed soil.
Another key aspect of BNH6 was its well-defined entrance, along with two wedge-shaped features outside and to the east of the inner enclosure, symmetrically placed either side of the entrance – probably to control movement and focus attention on the enclosure entrance, and also possibly used for the storage and display of excarnated bones.
Meanwhile, structure BNH5 consisted of an enclosure of much greater diameter, again defined by outer and inner pairs of post pits, with an irregular diameter ranging from 73m (240ft) to 101m (330ft). This too had a south-eastern entrance that aligned with the entrance to the inner enclosure. Outside and adjoining the enclosure, and on a slightly different alignment (more easterly than south-easterly), was an elaborate entrance structure, at the core of which was another square chamber. The intersection between one of its chamber posts with one of the enclosure posts led to the conclusion that the chamber was a later addition. Beyond this, massive posts – seven to the north and seven to the south – created a monumental façade flanking the entrance to the chamber.
Strikingly, there was also ample evidence across the site that the monument had been burnt at the end of its life. Where posts had rotted in situ, the green-yellow fill of the post pipe was clearly distinguishable from the rammed soil of the packing; a charcoal-rich plug at the top indicated where the overlying soil had slumped into the void at the top of the pipe as the timber rotted. Elsewhere, the funnel-shaped post pipe was much more often filled with a mix of charcoal-rich soil and cobbles. Experimental work carried out during the excavations showed that this could have resulted from the deliberate removal of the burnt and earth-fast stump of the post, and the backfilling of the resulting hole with soil and cobbles mixed with abundant charcoal from the burning event.
Interpreting the evidence
‘What does it all mean?’, asks the third part of the book (following Part 1: The Ballynahatty Landscape and Part 2: The Excavations 1999-2000). Carinated bowl sherds, leaf-shaped arrowheads, fragmentary axe-heads, and a radiocarbon date of 3785-3639 cal BC from BNH6 are taken as evidence of early Neolithic activity in the area during the first half of the 4th millennium BC, which might be contemporary with the putative cursus identified from aerial photographs and with the passage grave at the centre of the Giant’s Ring henge.
Various cremations associated with Coarse Ware, including the burial site of the 1855 find, represent middle Neolithic activity, with radiocarbon dates ranging from 3300 to 2900 cal BC. The authors suggest that these funerary remains are evidence that the Giant’s Ring passage grave has become ‘a nodal point for the subsequent evolution of the ceremonial landscape of Ballynahatty’.
They also ask whether these types of non-megalithic graves (i.e. without an above ground chamber, an absent or token passage, and possibly with symbolic orthostats) represents the burial tradition of a group of migrants, which, in other parts of Ireland, has been shown to be genetically distinct from the passage-grave farmers.
BHN5, BHN6, and their associated structures form part of the late Neolithic landscape, and these excavated features probably represent only a small part of what might have been a more extensive complex. The authors believe that the four-poster and its platform were constructed first as a place for the laying out of the dead for excarnation. It served as the focal point of a ‘theatrical landscape of imposing timber structures… the locus for ceremonies connected with the dead – thereby continuing, albeit in a more monumental fashion, the use of the area for dealing with the dead as seen in the middle Neolithic’.
Construction of the small enclosure came next, creating a square contained within a circle, and this was quickly followed by the building of enclosure BNH5 – all three being part of a single Phase 1 building campaign that commenced around 2700 cal BC. Phase 2 saw the construction of the entrance chamber on a different alignment, probably marking an elaboration of whatever activities took place at the site. The final phase saw the deliberate destruction by fire of the timber structures, the extraction of those charred posts that remained visible, and the infilling of their post pipes around 2500 cal BC, marking the end of a five generation, 120-year period of use. This did not mark the end of funerary activity in the Ballynahatty landscape, however, for there is plenty of evidence – as yet unexcavated or dated – for continuity of burial into the Bronze Age and perhaps right up to the early medieval period.
The excavators estimate that 471 posts were used to build the monument, predominantly of oak, but with some birch, hazel, and alder. The post lengths varied from 3m to 9m (10ft to 30 ft), and the diameters from 15cm (6in) to more than 1m (3ft). This would have entailed felling, trimming, and transporting an estimated 550 tonnes of timber, with the largest posts – those of the outer facade of BNH5 – weighing more than 5 tonnes (by comparison, the Stonehenge bluestones weigh between 2 and 5 tonnes and the sarsens between 25 and 30 tonnes). Cattle bones found at the site indicate that draft animals might have been used to help move the timbers, and they could also have been floated along the River Lagan from their source to the site. Cutting down this number of trees would surely have had a visible impact on the surrounding landscape.
The authors ask whether any of the enclosures or chambers had a roof, given that a similar timber circle at Knowth, in County Meath, is now thought to have been thatched. At Ballynahatty, however, the likely size of any rafters would have been too great for the size of the upright posts. We will never know, of course, whether the posts were free-standing or linked by horizontal lintels, since any such aerial structures would leave no trace. The carefully structured entrances and the funnelling of sight lines and access that are evident in the design, however, ‘only make sense if the enclosure walls provided a solid barrier’ as opposed to being simply a mass of free-standing posts. Solid walls would also give emphasis and definition to the circularity of the enclosures, which might not otherwise have been evident to onlookers.
The most readily available source and the most efficient solution to the creation of an impenetrable enclosure wall would have been to use the technique still commonly employed today of ‘dead hedging’ – that is to say, using the branches and trimmings from the trees that had been used to create the enclosures to fill the gap between the pairs of upright posts. Branches from a mature oak represent more than half of its volume, so there was plenty of spare material to hand for use in making a screen, and there is evidence from other sites of this period for the use of reeds as screening material (at Woodhenge in Wiltshire) and birch poles (at Bleasdale in Lancashire).
The abundance of charcoal encountered at the site (0.54 per cent by weight and 3.5 per cent by volume of the soil samples taken from the site) testifies to the conflagration that engulfed the monument leading to the almost total incineration of the upstanding structure. The evidence that this was not accidental is provided by the subsequent careful removal of the charred stumps, combined with the fact that some form of ritual destruction by fire and/or post extraction has been recorded at comparable sites – for example, at Dorchester-on-Thames in Oxfordshire, and Durrington Walls in Wiltshire.
Was this a hostile iconoclastic act, or a part of a sympathetic decommissioning or transformation ceremony? The authors favour the latter, arguing that ‘the timber monument at Ballynahatty was deliberately destroyed around 2500 cal BC in order to be replaced by a more enduring monument’ – that being the Giant’s Ring. Citing research by Alison Sheridan (2004) and Susan Greaney et al (2020; see ‘Further Reading’), they point to the centuries around 2500 BC as being the time when such very large henges were being built in southern Britain (see CA 371). Only further excavation at the Giant’s Ring will show whether or not this is the case, but one piece of existing evidence supports this thesis: when an area of the henge was excavated in 1954, the surface soil was found to contain numerous charcoal flecks – possibly ash and charcoal blown from the incinerated enclosures on the ridge above.
Legacies in the landscape
Ballynahatty is now one of Ireland’s best-documented Neolithic timber circles, but it is not unique. In addition to the example at Knowth, development-led archaeology in Ireland has led to the discovery since the 1990s of a further 21 sites, and although they differ in details – especially the design of the facades and entrances – all consist of a central rectangular four-post structure surrounded by a ring of posts. Moreover, all of them show evidence for the removal of the posts, sometimes after burning and then backfilling of the post pits, sometimes with carefully deposited artefacts. This square-in-circle arrangement is found in Britain – for example, at Durrington Walls – and in some cases the material recovered from these sites is domestic in character, making it difficult to distinguish between late Neolithic houses and ritual sites. Indeed, Julian Thomas has suggested that the ritual circles replicate and monumentalise contemporary houses.
At Ballynahatty, the authors are in no doubt that the ‘control of access, the choreographing of movement without and within and the careful organisation of space shows that this is a structure built to a carefully thought-out, predetermined plan which must have reflected existing rituals and was then constructed with great precision in the placement of the posts to a measured plan’. The redesign of the entrance, through BNH5 in the later phase, reorientated the approach upslope at the end of the ridge, making subtle use of the natural landscape to impress the visitor and enhance their encounter with the monument and its rituals.
The authors end their account of the site by imagining what the inhabitants of Neolithic Ballynahatty might have experienced when visiting the monument. This starts with a group arriving by boat and pulling up at a jetty on the river, which would later be called the Lagan. The remains of the deceased, lying on a bier and covered in skins, is then carried up the steep slopes to the entrance of the enclosure on the ridge. This is, by design, an upward journey, and once the funeral party is admitted to the square vestibule, references to the earthly landscape are blocked: the focus is now on the sky.
The annexe might have been used for some sort of ceremony or a ritual meal before the people in charge of the complex, accompanied perhaps by the head of the household, take the body from the outer enclosure to the inner circle. Here the deceased is placed on the platform where several other bodies are already visible in various states of decomposition (ladders would presumably have been necessary to reach the platform as shown in the reconstruction drawing). Here began the ceremonial journey from the world of the living to the world of the ancestors, with rituals perhaps carried out to ensure a successful passage. Over time, the bones, washed by the rain and bleached by the sun, would possibly be placed in an ossuary or charnel house, completing the transformation of the deceased family member into an ancestor.
– Barrie Hartwell, Sarah Gormely, Catriona Brogan, and Caroline Malone (eds) (2023) Ballynahatty: excavations in a Neolithic monumental landscape (Oxbow, £58, ISBN 978-1789259711).
– Alison Sheridan, ‘Going round in circles? Understanding the Irish grooved ware “complex” in its wider context’ in John Bradley, John Coles, Eoin Grogan, Barry Rafferty (eds.) (2004) From Megaliths to Metals (Oxbow, £60, ISBN 978-1842171516).
– Susan Greaney et al (2020) ‘Tempo of a mega-henge: a new chronology for Mount Pleasant, Dorchester, Dorset’, Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 86, pp.199-236, http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/ppr.2020.6
All Images: Barrie Hartwell, unless otherwise stated