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Bullaun stones are one of those classic Irish

archaeological monuments that everyone

knows about, many have seen, but few have

really thought about in any serious way,

largely because of their seemingly enigmatic

function. are scoops or
They basically
hollows in large stones, typically lacking
any fillor context thatmight betray their

My interest in the role?or multiple

roles?of bullauns in the past was piqued
when reading a recent article in Archaeology

Ireland (Autumn 2008) byMatt Kelleher and

Caimin O'Brien which discussed some stone

basins, cut into bedrock underlying peat in

Meelaghan, Co. Offaly, that look very
similar to stone mortars used for grinding

grain in a number of Native American

cultures. The authors suggested that these

features do not fit into the traditional

of bullauns as 'a single

found in association with an
ecclesiastical site' and should be classified
as 'bedrock mortars', a
separately implying
use in food production.

What struck me, however, was how

similar these stones also are to mortars for

iron ores that I have seen in the


archaeological literature. The idea of

bullaun stones being used for the crushing

of metallic ores is not new but it has been

overlooked by Irish archaeologists in favour

of on the
interpretations focusing
of grains, nuts and seeds or on

religious/ritual explanations. Further

research made clear that associations with

early metalworking may be significant for at

least a subset of bullaun stones and, more

importantly, that this could be tested

through both excavation and survey.

Previous research
BEDROCKS AND The seemingly intractable nature of bullaun

stones has meant that few have thought to

BULLAUNS: more than study them, let alone

define or

systematically analyse Hypotheses

regarding their function have changed little

one use for a mortar? since theywere first identified in the late
nineteenth century, and the last major

article on the topic, published by Liam Price

50 years still awaits an
Brian Dolan wonders whether complacency has affected the exactly ago,
work has been
(although significant

interpretation of bullauns.
out as part of
recently by David McGuinness
a doctoral project in UCD). There is a

acceptance, based on their


16 Archaeology Ireland Spring 2009


Opposite page: Bullaun stone from

Glendalough, Co. Wicklow (photo: Terry


Right: Conical ore-crushing hollows from

Mugharet al Warda, Jordan (photo: Yosha Al


consistent association with early

ecclesiastical sites, that the stones date from
the early medieval period, but problems of

definition, classification and dating still

. ;
remain. % :' ~".?^ ^^"^u.

Possibly the most crucial issue in the

study of bullaun stones has been the

unverifiable nature of the most popular
theories about their use. This is due to a lack
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of relevant historical sources and the
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ephemeral nature of many of the activities
that have been associated with them. Owing
to this lack of evidence, of
bullaun stones have relied on
folklore as well as ethnographic and Bullauns and metallurgy depressions on their surface. Another
historical analogy. little is known about the extraction or method, used in Rajasthan, involves the
The use of 'knocking stones' in Scotland of metallic ores in early medieval creation of mortars, c. 50cm in
processing large
and Ulster in the early modern period for Ireland. It is clear, both from the diameter and 50cm for the crushing of
pounding barley and oats, combined with evidence and the texts, that a silver-lead ores with iron or iron-shod
archaeological large
ethnographic and historical examples of variety of metals, particularly iron and pestles. Similar mortars, in an outcrop of
similar stone-cut basins from across the copper, were mined, and smelted bedrock associated with a or
processed Byzantine
world being used for food production, have on a basis. No mines from the medieval iron-mine, have been
fairly regular recently
provided the best argument for bullaun period have been identifiedarchaeologically identified in Jordan.
stones a similar use in Ireland. but are mentioned in the law-tracts. beneficiation is carried out in
having they Normally,
Peter Harbison has convincingly linked Ore, once extracted, is usually i.e. or close to a mine or extraction site,
some bullaun stones in the Dingle Peninsula broken up into smaller sorted and, in the case of bog ore waterlogged
pieces, although
with pilgrimage as part of a of on the ore, roasted to conditions may have necessitated
package depending prior
remains associated with early pilgrim routes. smelting.A verse in theDindsenchas of Alien processing elsewhere. The smelting site,
The association of many bullaun stones Cobthaig specificallymentions the crushing which could sometimes have been adjacent
with ecclesiastical sites certainly appears to of ore by the SilmBuinne of Bantry after it to the ore source, may have seen further

point to some form of religious context for was it is not clear of ore, on the metal
quarried; unfortunately grinding depending
their use, but evidence of metalworking on whether this took at the site of extracted and the smelting
place being technique
many church sites, such as Clonfad, Co. extraction or elsewhere. used. sites are also often located
Westmeath, or Clonmacnoise, Co. The and of ore, termed close to sources of fuel, population centres
Offaly, crushing sorting
may point to an underlying industrial cause beneficiation, is necessary in almost all cases or in socially areas.
for the association. This might also explain prior to smelting. Methods of crushing vary at least, an obvious
the occurrence of bullauns in isolated from the use of stone hammers to can be drawn between Irish bullaun
simple analogy
locations and in association with secular the rolling of heavy boulders over ore stones and the mortars
spread ore-crushing
sites. Other interpretations of the bullauns on a flat rock. Two methods known from discussed, but, there is also
as stones, as curative India result in stone basins or depressions evidence to the
cursing having archaeological support
associations or as fonts have been very similar to those classified as bullaun Some of the most
baptismal comparison. convincing
based on a mixture of and stones in Ireland. ore on flat evidence comes from Gallen
conjecture Crushing Priory, where
folklore. Little or no direct evidence for their boulders or rock outcrops using hand-held Kendrick found an ironworking area with

use, or indeed their date, has been found, hammers or pestles produces a shallow deep pits of iron slag and burnt earth and a
and this has forced a reliance on which, upon a depth of stone slab over 2m long. The slab had
analogy depression reaching huge
c. 10cm, begins
and speculation. to abrade fingertips as well a 'basin' 50cm in diameter 'scooped' out of
as ore, resulting in stones with multiple it, which the excavator was for

Archaeology Ireland Spring 2009 17

Left: Shallow depressions from crushing gold

bearing quartz using small hand-held

hammers in Karnataka, India (from Craddock

Left middle: Large mortar for crushing silver
lead ore from Rajasthan, India (from Craddock

Left bottom: Bullaun stone excavated at Gallen

Priory, Co. Offaly (from Kendrick 1939).

'the crushing of ore'. No more direct

association of a bullaun with metalworking
could be imagined, and it isvery likely that
it is a smelting area associated with an

ecclesiastical settlement. Unfortunately

there is no direct date; the bullaun itself
suggests an medieval date and the
cross-slabs suggest a ninth- or
date, while historical sources date Gallen's
foundation to AD 492.
Further evidence comes from a site

recently excavated by the Glasgow

University Archaeological Research Division
at the Carrick, Loch Lomond in western

Scotland. Two work platforms were

excavated very close to an enclosed

cemetery. All of the sites had dates in the

rangeAD 690-900 and are probably broadly
contemporary. Multiple negative features
were excavated on the many of
which contained iron slag and charcoal. A
stone c. 50cm in maximum found
rightbeside one of the platforms,with three
circular depressions ground into its surface,

would certainly be classified as a bullaun if

found in Ireland. A possible Irishparallel to
this site may be the crannog at Bofeenaun,

Co. Mayo, an
apparently single-phase
ironworking site with a

dendrochronological date of AD 804 ? 9.

Two stone mortars, not called bullauns in
the report, were found on the site, along
with a grinding stone or saddle quern and

74kg of iron slag.

More evidence comes from the original

excavation at Nendrum, Co. Down, where a

circular stone, stained red as if used for

or as an anvil, was found
associated with some nodules of ironstone
ore. The
early medieval ecclesiastical site of

Tullylish, also in County Down, saw the

excavation of a number of deposits from

enclosing ditches with a significant amount

of metalworking slag. One pit (no. 64)

contained several large boulders, one of

Archaeology Ireland Spring 2009


which was interpretedas a potential bullaun detect the remains of smelting operations: Above left: Possible bullaun stone from the

to an artificial on its ores, hearths and Carrick, Loch Lomond, Scotland (photo
owing depression roasting pits, slag,
surface. Cut into the fill of the pit was a furnaces. This could be followed up by courtesy of David Sneddon).

possible furnace or hearth bottom lined excavation to investigate the character of Above: Ore-crushing mortar from

a dense Further studies could extend Co. Mayo.

with layer of charcoal and slag. any anomalies. Bofeenaun,

Less direct evidence for the association the scope of such investigations to other
of stone mortars with comes such as those not associated with and such as bedrock mortars, as
metalworking sites, sub-types
from the hut site of Glannafeen, Co. Cork, ecclesiastical or monastic well as characterisation according to their

likely to date from the IronAge or the early Ifthere isa spatial linkbetween bullaun location, may provide new insights into
medieval period. A spur of bedrock running stones and extraction sites then these stones their place in early medieval society and
through the hut, which contained a stone may provide signposts for locating economy. There is clearly potential to
lined had a circular unknown mines?and, in the progress from arguments relying on
iron-smelting furnace, previously
bullaun-like hollow shown on the plan but case of bog ore deposits, long-destroyed folklore, analogy and conjecture to

not discussed in the text. At Drumnakill, Co. bogs. This would be particularly true of explanations based on archaeological

Antrim, an church site, E. E. Evans bullauns in primary locations, such as the realities and methodologies.
noted a largebullaun cut into a flat dolerite 'bedrockmortars' proposed by Kelleher and
block and surrounded by large amounts of O'Brien. Acknowledgements
iron slag. More circumstantial evidence Thanks toDr Aidan O'Sullivan and Maureen
comes from sites like St Gobnet's House, Conclusion for advice and comments on
Doyle previous
or Clonmacnoise, Co. Bullaun stones have been known and drafts. Thanks also to David Sneddon, Terry
Ballyvourney, Offaly,
where both metalworking and bullaun researched since the nineteenth century and O'Hagan, Conor McDermott and Dr Yosha

stones are recorded but with no direct it isperhaps this long history thathas led to Al-Amri for providing images. Finally,
associations. complacency in their study. In reality, the thanks to the IRCHSS and the National
term 'bullaun', as used by Irish University of Ireland for fundingmy Ph.D
Testing the theory archaeologists, is a generic one, research.

The evidence outlined above is very incorporating any hemispherical hollow in

suggestive but not conclusive. The obvious a large stone not demonstrably prehistoric References
next step is to identify arepresentative
or natural. It is very likely that the various Craddock, P.T. 1995 Earlymetal mining and
of bullaun stones in a landscape for a we characterise as bullauns production. Edinburgh University Press.
group depressions

systematic survey, involving geophysics and include monuments that do not share a Kendrick, T.D. 1939 Gallen Priory
test-pit excavation. The group at single chronology
or function. excavations, 1934-5. Journal of the Royal

Glendalough, Co. Wicklow, located in a It is hoped that this article has offered SocietyofAntiquaries of Ireland69, 1-20.
mineral-rich area, is an obvious candidate. not a use for some bullauns Price, L. 1959 Rock-basins, or 'bullauns', at
only potential
For example, a magnetometry survey carried but also some plausible evidence and a Glendalough and elsewhere. Journalof
out in the vicinity of the bullauns, but also direction for future study. Further work on theRoyal SocietyofAntiquaries of Ireland
critically further away as a control, could the classification and definition of bullauns 89, 161-88.

Archaeology Ireland Spring 2009 19