theories in the real world, learning how peoplelived, hunted, fought, or built. Whilst thesetechniques do not ‘prove’ that interpretationsare correct, they provide a powerful tool in pre-dicting the type of evidence we should expect tosee if the anticipated activities were taking place.Using these principles, O’Kelly reconstructedthe wooden trough and a hearth, and deter-mined that by heating stones in the fire andremoving them with a long-handled shoveland then placing them in the trough, he couldbring the water to boil within about 30 minutes.Using this (and occasionally adding more stonesto keep the water boiling) he cooked a 4.5kg legof mutton in three hours and 40 minutes. Oncethe meat had been consumed and the fires dieddown, the trough was cleaned out ready forreuse. It was about two-thirds full of cracked andbroken stones, amounting to 0.5m
in volume.Chucking this material to the side of thetrough, a horseshoe-shape mound began toform. Using these data to interpret the excavatedevidence, O’Kelly estimated that as long as the
in the uplands of Britain. Radiocarbon dating forthese monuments varies significantly betweenthe Late Neolithic and the Iron Age, with themajority clustering in the Bronze Age, between1900-1500 BC and 1200-800 BC.Burnt mounds are characterised by the pres-ence of a trough, into which hot stones wereplaced to heat water. Afterwards, the heat-shattered stone fragments were fished out of the trough and discarded, so that repeated usecaused the gradual build up of a horseshoe-shaped mound. The trough could be rock-cut,wood-lined, or clay-lined, and was designed tohold enough water to boil or produce steam.Whilst archaeologists have a good grasp of how this hot-stone technology worked, itspurpose is less clear. Various interpretationshave been proposed for the function of burntmounds, including cooking, textile dying, cre-ating steam for sweat-lodges, and leather prepa-ration. The prevailing archaeological consensusis that burnt mounds were primarily cookingplaces, but this hypothesis is not without itsshortcomings.In 1952, the eminent Irish archaeologist M JO’Kelly undertook the first scientifically con-trolled excavation of two burnt mounds atBallyvourney, Co. Cork. Burnt mounds had longbeen known to antiquarians; references in earlyIrish literature to the ‘open air cooking places’of the young warrior-hunters of the
(small, independent warrior bands), led by thelegendary Fionn MacCumhail, resulted in theburnt mounds being termed
.Professor O’Kelly found a standard patternwhich included a mound of heat-shatteredstones (measuring 12m in width and 60cm inheight) surrounding a rectangular trough (mea-suring 1.8m long and 40cm deep). He foundlittle in the way of artefacts or animal bone,an absence that is a tell-tale signature of burntmounds. In order to investigate further, O’Kellydecided to employ the nascent science of experi-mental archaeology to determine whether thesesites could serve as Prehistoric cooking places.
Burnt mounds as cooking places?
In his seminal book
Archaeology by Experiment
, John Coles set an agenda for a new approachto understanding the scant remains from thedistant past. By reconstructing ancient equip-ment and technology using techniques avail-able in the past, archaeologists ‘try out’ their
Archaeologistsexcavating a burnt moundtrough uncovered atNewrath, Co. Kilkenny, onthe route of the N25, anddirected by the author.
Archaeologists can only hope thatwhen the Prehistoric party was over,someone had broken a few pots.
p h o t o s :
J a m e s E o g a n