A Neolithic Ceremonial Timber Complex at Ballynahatty, Co. Down. (Special Section)

By Hartwell, Barrie | Antiquity, June 2002 | Go to article overview
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A Neolithic Ceremonial Timber Complex at Ballynahatty, Co. Down. (Special Section)

Hartwell, Barrie, Antiquity


Belfast Lough is a deep indent of the Irish Sea into the coastline of Northern Ireland. Its southwestern continuation is the Lagan Valley, which separates the steep scarp of the Antrim Plateau (height c. 300 m) from the hills of Co Down (c. 120 m) to the southeast. The River Lagan flows along this broad, undulating valley floor through thick deposits of glacial sands and gravels before emptying into the Lough at Belfast. Eight kilometres southwest of Belfast, the river passes the townland of Ballynahatty, a sandy plateau 100 ha in extent. This was the site in the 4th millenium BC of a small passage tomb, orientated to the northwest (Collins 1954: 48; Lawlor 1918: 16-19). Though now denuded of its covering mound, it provided the subsequent focus for a series of atypical passage tombs utilizing ever smaller settings of stone (Hartwell 1998: 33-6). Shortly after 3000 BC this was followed by a complex of large and elaborate east-facing timber structures (Ballynahatty 5 and 6). These in turn were eventually replaced by the earth and stone hengiform enclosure of the Giant's Ring, built around the original passage tomb. At over 200 m in diameter and 4 m in height this is one of the largest and best-preserved henges in Ireland and dominates the southeast corner of the plateau (Hartwell 1998: 36-9). A low, broad ridge (c. 5 m high) runs east-west less than 100 m to the north of the Ring. At its western end is a large boulder, the only other visible archaeological feature. A number of sites were removed from the townland in the 18th and 19th centuries including standing stones, elaborate cists and two unmarked cemeteries which produced `many cartloads of human bones' (MacAdam & Getty 1855: 364).

The timber enclosures

Following their identification from crop marks in 1989, the eastern end of Ballynahatty 5 (BNH5) and the whole of Ballynahatty 6 (BNH6) were excavated over 10 seasons from 1989 to 2000 by the School of Archaeology & Palaeoecology at Queen's University Belfast with grant aid from the Environment and Heritage Service--Built Heritage. The air photographs had shown a large oval palisaded enclosure (BNH5) sitting on the edge of the ridge overlooking the Ring and spreading down the more gentle slope to the north, at the bottom of which is the remains of a small glacial kettle lake. BNH5 consisted of a double line of substantial pits 100x70 m containing the smaller enclosure, BNH6 (16 m diameter), at its eastern end. Excavation showed these to be the postholes of complex timber structures with elaborate entrances carefully sited to take maximum advantage of local relief. Excavation of the features was particularly difficult in the glacial sands and gravels and plough damage was at its most severe on the top of the ridge. Most of the original ground surface and any shallower features have been destroyed and many of the flint artefacts, for example, were recovered from the top soil. Detailed phasing and dating must await further analysis and the full excavation report but the substantial nature of the postholes, averaging 2 m in depth, allow preliminary interpretation of the more substantial structures.

The dominant pottery type is Grooved Ware. Carrowkeel ware comes from the earlier passage tombs and possibly from an early stage of the timber structure--if a line of four cremations is assumed to align with the entrance (FIGURE 1). Part of a Beaker pot was recovered but the context was uncertain. Of the worked flint, end scrapers predominate and there are substantial amounts of burnt flint.


The earliest focus of activity on the ridge area seems to have been at the BNH6 enclosure. Two postholes either side of the entrance between C3 and C4 (FIGURE 2) may be all that is left of an earlier and simpler enclosure similar to that found at Knowth (Eoghan & Roche 1997: 101-23). If so, this has been destroyed in large part by the inner ring (A4) of BNH6.

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A Neolithic Ceremonial Timber Complex at Ballynahatty, Co. Down. (Special Section)


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