Project:

The construction, use and re-use of Bargrennan chambered cairns, Galloway (2002-6)


Project Leader(s): Dr Chris Fowler (Newcastle), Dr Vicki Cummings (University of Central Lancashire)
Sponsors: British Academy, the Society of Antiquaries of London, Prehistoric Society. Support has also been provided from the Universities of Cardiff, Manchester, Newcastle and Central Lancashire and students from these institutions have participated in the fieldwork.

Background: There are two different types of chambered cairn in Galloway – long rectangular cairns and circular cairns with narrow passages leading to the chambers. While four long cairns have been excavated, prior to this project only one of the round ‘Bargrennan’ sites had been partially investigated, during three days in 1949. During this project we excavated two Bargrennan sites: Cairnderry, a Bargrennan monument with three chambers, and the single-chambered site of Bargrennan White Cairn. The aims of the project were to: (a) date the initial construction of these monuments and ascertain whether each was built in a single phase; (b) search for evidence of earlier activity under the cairns; and (c), from 2004, search for evidence of the extent of early Bronze Age re-use.

Cairnderry had been severely robbed in the past, and no deposits were found to survive in the southern chamber. However, we did find an early Neolithic flint and pot assemblage underneath the cairn at Cairnderry. We identified that the monument was originally hemmed by a kerb of flat-faced stones. In 2003 we also found five early Bronze Age cremation pits around the kerb to the south-east of the monument. These pits all contained cremated bone – some of which we have had radiocarbon dated - and charcoal. One pit also contained some spectacular grave goods: an early Bronze Age battleaxe, an upturned collared urn and an accessory vessel. This evidence suggests that c.1900-1700 BC people were using the outside of the monument for funerary activities.

Bargrennan was examined through trenches into and in front of the passage, and in 2005 also at the rear of the site. We identified that the cairn here was also bounded by a kerb (both at front and back of the site), and appears to have been built in a single event. Early Bronze Age mortuary activity was discovered, including a cist inserting into the cairn and containing an urn holding cremated human remains, and three other features containing cremated human bone. One of these contained an inverted collared urn in which were cremated bones, a bone pin, and pieces of a stone battleaxe which was fractured by heat.

We have now analysed and compared the findings from both sites. We also considered the findings in the context of local Neolithic and early Bronze Age activity, including comparison with the evidence for the early Bronze Age re-use of Clyde monuments known from earlier excavations. The full report from the project is now published:

Vicki Cummings and Chris Fowler (with specialists' contributions). From Cairn to Cemetery : An archaeological investigation of the chambered cairns and early Bronze Age mortuary deposits at Cairnderry and Bargrennan White Cairn, south-west Scotland. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2007. BAR British Series 434.

Archaeological interim reports on the results of each season’s work can be downloaded from the Archaeology Data Service.