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The environmental context and function of burnt-mounds: palaeoenvironmental studies of Irish Fulacht Fiadh

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Burnt mounds or fulachta fiadh as they are known in Ireland are probably the most common prehistoric site type in Ireland and Britain. Typically Middle to late Bronze in age (although both earlier and later examples are known), they are artefact-poor and rarely associated with settlements. They generally consist of a low mound of stones often showing signs of fire-exposure arranged by, or around, a pit or trough which may be unlined or lined by wood or stone. The function of these sites has been much debated with the most commonly cited uses being for cooking, as steam baths or saunas, for brewing or textile processing. A number of major infrastructural development schemes in Ireland in the years 2002-2007 revealed remarkable numbers of these mounds often associated with wood-lined troughs, many of which were remarkably well preserved. This afforded an opportunity to investigate these sites as landscape features using environmental techniques - specifically plant macrofossils, pollen, beetles and multi-element analyses. This paper presents the results from nine sites from Ireland and compares them with burnt mound sites in Britain. The fulachta fiadh which are generally in clusters are all groundwater-fed by springs along floodplains and at the bases of slopes. The sites are associated with the clearance of wet woodland for fuel and have predominantly ‘natural’ beetle assemblages found in wet woodlands. At 7 out of the 9 sites evidence of nearby agricultural (arable) activity was revealed and all sites revealed, some but not high, levels of grazing. At one site (Cahiracon) both pollen and coleoptera suggested that oak galls or leaves were brought onto site, at another (Coonagh West) both pollen and macrofossils suggested that alder was being used on site and at a third (Jigginstown) the pollen of two dye plants (purging flax and knapweed) was recovered. Multi-element analysis at two sites (Inchagreenoge and Coonagh West) revealed elevated heavy metal concentrations suggesting that non-local soil or ash had been used in the trough. This evidence, taken together with the shallow depth of all the sites, their self-filling nature, attempts to filter incoming water, the occasional occurrence of flat stones and flimsy stake structures at one site (Inchagreenoge), suggests that the most likely function for these sites is textile processing involving both cleaning and/or dying of wool and/or natural plant fibres. This can be regarded as a functionally related activity to hide cleaning and tanning for which there is evidence from one site (Ballygawley) as well as from other Irish burnt mound sites. Whilst further research is clearly needed to confirm if fulachta fiadh are part of the ‘textile revolution’ we should also recognise their important role in the rapid deforestation of the wetter parts of primary woodland and the expansion of agriculture into marginal areas during the Bronze Age.

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Brown, Antony G., Davis, Steven R. and Hatton, Jackie et al. (2016) The environmental context and function of burnt-mounds: palaeoenvironmental studies of Irish Fulacht Fiadh Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 82, pp. 259-290. (doi:10.1017/ppr.2016.7).

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Accepted/In Press date: 19 May 2016
e-pub ahead of print date: 17 August 2016
Published date: 2016
Organisations: Palaeoenvironment Laboratory (PLUS)


Local EPrints ID: 405798
PURE UUID: 737f6297-60ca-4242-91e7-f0e8d2990657

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Date deposited: 18 Feb 2017 00:21
Last modified: 17 Jul 2017 14:07

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Author: Antony G. Brown
Author: Steven R. Davis
Author: Jackie Hatton
Author: Charlotte O'Brien
Author: Fiona Reilly
Author: Emer K. Dennehy
Author: Lorna O'Donnell
Author: Nora Bermingham
Author: Tim Mighall
Author: Scott Timpany
Author: Emma Tetlow
Author: Jane Wheeler
Author: Shirley Wynne

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