AMS Dating of the Manx Ronaldsway Neolithic

Article excerpt


The Ronaldsway Culture of the Isle of Man is a clearly discernible and geographically focused late Neolithic regional grouping 'well defined in all its major aspects' (Piggott 1954: 346). Yet Ronaldsway material remains poorly dated and of unknown duration, an unfortunate obstacle to understanding the Manx cultural sequence, Neolithic social relations and cultural change in the coastlands of the Irish Sea region.

This paper reports a programme of AMS dating carried out in association with the Oxford University Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit. The aim was comprehensively to date the distinctive ceramic Ronaldsway jars.

The Ronaldsway Culture and its affinities

Ronaldsway Culture material, in particular the distinctive thick-walled jars, was initially thought to be of ultimate Bronze Age date/Clark 1935: 85). However, Second World War excavations by J.R. Bruce and E.M. Megaw at Ronaldsway Airport in the south of the Island (Bruce et al. 1947), and by G. Bersu at Ballateare in the north (Bersu 1947), showed beyond doubt that Ronaldsway material was earlier and should be placed within the later Neolithic.

The main features of the Ronaldsway Culture as defined by Basil Megaw (in Bruce et al. 1947: 157), subsequently affirmed and comprehensively illustrated (Piggott 1954: figures 59-61), were: deep baggy ceramic jars with overhanging rims, stone axes with roughened butts, engraved stone plaques, thick hump-backed flint scrapers, polished flint knives, hollow scrapers, and lozenge-shaped arrowheads. Single houses rather than villages were represented, as were cremation cemeteries. Most distinctive of all was the preponderance of ceramic jars placed upright in the ground with their tops just below ground-level and covered by a stone slab.

Piggott's pre-radiocarbon short chronology for the British Neolithic allowed the Ronaldsway Culture a duration of three centuries immediately prior to 1500 Be, making it contemporary with the Rinyo-Clacton, Peterborough and Dorchester Cultures (Piggott 1954: table opposite 380). By the most recent review of the Ronaldsway material (Moffatt 1978), five radiocarbon determinations were available from two relevant sites, but all are problematic and their associations with Ronaldsway material poor (TABLE 1). Of the three dates from Killeaba, Ramsey, one related to a 'burning pit' and was essentially of Mesolithic age (6310[+ or -]72 b.p.: BM-838). Two later dates, 3309-2905 BC(1) (4381[+ or -]58 b.p.: BM-839) and 3089-2704 BC (4300[+ or -]52 b.p.: BM-840) result from determinations on oak charcoal from what were interpreted as timber linings (?planked) within two separate pits, TI and TII, both containing cremated bone. The latter was loosely associated with a Ronaldsway jar which cut the upper fill (Cubbon 1978: pot 2). Stratigraphic position and the likelihood that the timber was older than the feature in which it lay means [TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE 1 OMITTED] that these dates only provide a very crude terminus post quem for the pottery.

The dates from Ballaharra, St John's, 30272600 BC (4225[+ or -]67 b.p.: BM-768) and 3026-2616 BC (4233[+ or -]59 b.p.: BM-769) both derive from charcoal found in a large cremation pit containing the remains of 30-40 individuals, four burnt lozenge-shaped flint arrowheads, and the base of a small ceramic vessel similar to a miniature vessel found Ballateare, Jurby (Cregeen 1978: 147). Moffatt attempted to reconcile all these dates, but concluded that the determinations served only to complicate rather than clarify the situation (1978: 216).

Little changed between 1978 and 1994. A single charcoal sample from Ballavarry, Andreas, provided a date of 2887-2584 BC (4140[+ or -]50 b.p.: GU-2696) for one of a series of interconnecting pits containing a scatter of fragmentary Ronaldsway jars and a decorated slate plaque (Garrad 1984: 162-5). Recent attempts to date animal bone from war-time excavations of the Ronaldsway 'House' were frustrated by contaminated or insecurely provenanced samples. …