Ballynahatty: excavations in a Neolithic monumental landscape


Six miles from Belfast city centre is the monumental complex at Ballynahatty. Today, the circular earthwork known as the Giant’s Ring, with a small megalith set at its centre, is still visible, but once this was one of the major late Neolithic complexes of Ireland (see CA 403). Like other late Neolithic complexes, this location was not picked at random but incorporates earlier sites along with natural landscape features: it was, therefore, already an important place.

The first section of this book begins with the antiquarian interest in this site and early explorations, before moving on to the aerial and geophysical surveys of the wider landscape. These surveys were critical in identifying much of the archaeology discussed in the book. The extent of the discoveries is neatly displayed at the end of the section as a composite of all features identified, showing how much of the landscape was altered in prehistory.

The second section then details the excavations of Ballynahatty 5 and 6 – the timber enclosures alongside the remains of a passage tomb. The excavation report clearly demonstrates the sheer size and scale of the endeavour, as these were constructed using monstrous and often very closely set timbers. Following the main excavation report are specialist reports, including the pottery, an assessment of the important assemblage of more than 5,000 artefacts and chipped stones, the cremated human remains, and the dating of the site.

The last section places these results into a wider perspective. First, there is evidence of early Neolithic use of the landscape in the form of occupation debris and a small dolmen. The middle Neolithic is represented at the site by funerary activity, usually in associated megalithic structures. However, the main focus is, rightly, on the late Neolithic timber enclosures, and consideration of how these were built and what precise form they may have taken. This part of the book is lavishly illustrated with reconstructions which work really well. A consideration of the wider context of this site in Ireland shows that this was one of the largest timber circles on the island. This volume is therefore essential for anyone interested in late Neolithic monumental complexes in Ireland, in Britain, and further afield.

Barrie Hartwell, Sarah Gormley, Catriona Brogan, and Caroline Malone (eds)
Oxbow Books, £58
ISBN 978-1789259711