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Balladoole

Period: Bronze Age

NGR Easting: 224600

NGR Northing: 468200

Description: Iron Age hillfort, medieval ship burial, medieval chapel and burial ground, Mesolithic artefacts. The earliest recorded activity on the site occurred during prehistoric times, leaving a scatter of Mesolithic midden material.

The earliest identified structure, however, are the remains of a Bronze Age burial cist towards the north side of the hill. Unfortunately there are no records of finds from inside the cist and any monumental mound that may have originally been associated with it has been destroyed by later activity.

The hilltop is encircled by an earthwork, most visible at the eastern end where there appears to be an entrance. Excavation here revealed a number of postholes, which convinced the excavator that the hilltop was occupied as a prehistoric hillfort.

The earthwork was faced with a stone wall, though little of this survives. Where excavated, the amount of collapsed stone suggested it might have stood to a height of as much as 3m, creating a significant obstacle. There are gaps, however, which raise doubts over its defensive purpose and capability. The largest of these, in the north-west, may have been formed later during the use of the chapel.

At the west end of the hilltop lie the remains of a chapel, measuring 5 by 3m. The walls are low, so there are no architectural features save for a doorway towards the west end of the south wall. Excavation showed that the interior was paved with small limestone flags, and a large boulder against the eastern wall formed part of the base of an altar. The keeill was constructed on a low, almost rectangular platform, which was also paved.

Geophysical survey suggests that the platform may be associated with a buried ditch, which, together with the discovery of fragments of a Bronze Age cremation urn found buried below the floor of the chapel, is consistent with several other sites where prehistoric burial sites have been re-used during the Christian era.

The ship burial is now visible as a boat-shaped arrangement of white stones that form a kerb around a low mound. The mound was significantly larger before excavation in the 1940s, which led to an expectation that it formed part of the defences of a hillfort.

The ship survived only as a spread of 300 or so iron nails that had been used to fasten the timbers together; their layout suggests a vessel 11 metres long. Some of the stones within the burial cairn had been placed so as to support the mast or a substantial post, thus drawing further attention to the burial.

Within the ship were found the remains of a man and his grave goods. These included a bronze ring-headed pin and a gilded belt buckle. There were also iron knives, a flint strike-a-light, and an iron cauldron. The most spectacular items, however, were a collection of riding gear, including a bridle, stirrups and spurs with ornamental buckles. There was also a shield, but no sword.

The burial was completed with the cremated remains of animals representing the dead man’s domestic possessions - his land and livestock - which had been sacrificed so that they could accompany him in the afterlife.

The excavations also revealed the remains of lintel graves belonging to a Christian cemetery, which had been disturbed during the burial of the ship. The damage has been interpreted as a mere accident, or as deliberate desecration but may equally have indicated an appreciation of the significance of the site and a desire to share the space.

View map location on Archaeology Data Service

Site & Monument Type: chapel; hillfort; ship burial

Category: National Monuments Record: Statutory Ancient Monuments

Site ID number: 0001.00