Prehistoric burnt mound archaeology in Ireland

by Alan J Hawkes

Institution: University College Cork
Year: 2015
Keywords: Fulachtaí fia; Prehistory; Bronze Age; Pyrolithic technology
Posted: 02/05/2017
Record ID: 2069746
Full text PDF: http://hdl.handle.net/10468/1953


It is apparent from the widespread distribution of burnt mounds that Ireland was the most prolific user of pyrolithic technology in Bronze Age Europe. Even though burnt mounds are the most common prehistoric site type in Ireland, they have not received the same level of research as other prehistoric sites. This is primarily due to the paucity of artefact finds and the unspectacular nature of the archaeological remains, compounded by the absence of an appropriate research framework. Due to the widespread use of the technology and the various applications of hot water, narratives related to these sites have revolved around discussions of age and function. This has resulted in a generalised classification, where the term ‘fulacht fia’ covers several site types that have similar features but differing functions and age. The study presents a re-evaluation of fulachtaí fia in light of some 1000 sites excavated in Ireland. This is the most comprehensive study undertaken on the use of pyrolithic technology in prehistoric Ireland, dealing with different aspects of site function, chronology, social role and cultural context. A number of key areas have been identified in relation to our understanding of these sites. Previous investigations of burnt mounds have provided little information on the temporality of individual sites. It has been established that appropriate sampling strategies can provide important information about the formation of individual sites, their relationships to each other and to other monuments in the same cultural landscape. The evidence suggests that considerable caution should be exercised with regard to certain single radiometric dates from burnt stone deposits, based on the degree of certainty of the dated sample and its association with pyrolithic activity. Previously regarded as Bronze Age in date, there are now numerous examples of pyrolithic-type processes in earlier contexts, with the origins of the water-boiling phenomenon now considered to be Early Neolithic. A review of recent excavation evidence provides new insights into the use of pyrolithic technology for cooking. This is based on the discovery of faunal remains at several sites, combined with insights gained through experimental studies. The model proposed here is of open-air communal feasting and food sharing hosted by small family groups, as a medium for social bonding and the construction of community. It is also argued that if cooking was the primary activity taken place at these sites, this should not be viewed as a mundane functional activity, but rather one that actively contributed to the constitution of social relations. The formality of the technology is also supported by the presence of possible specialised structures, some of which were used for cooking/feasting while others were for ritualised sweat-bathing. The duration and frequency of activities associated with burnt mounds and the opportunities they provided for social interaction suggest that these sites contributed some familiar frames of reference to contemporary… Advisors/Committee Members: O'Brien, William.