[from Proc IoMNH&ASoc vol 4 #2 1936]
11th December, 1935.
By Mr. W. C. CUBBON.
The time has not yet arrived when a complete report can be made and definite conclusions come to regarding the work of discovery which is still in progress, but there is no reason why, a report should not be made at this juncture of what has been found. Such a report may be helpful provided we approach it with an open mind, and admit that any suggestions are subject to alteration as fresh information is gained from time to time. There are, however, several points that are sufficiently established by the discoveries already made.
I think that it can hardly be questioned that we are dealing with a site that has been in occupation from a very early period in the life of the human race in Western Europe. To enable us to get some idea, however hazy, of that period as it affects Ronaldsway, I would ask you to consider the site as it would be at some even earlier period.
Although most things are subject to change during the passing of the centuries, there are a few things that are fairly secure from change. The general contour of the land from Barrule to the sea; the rocky coast line; the winds and tides, all these may be considered much as they were many thousands of years ago. The watercourses from Barrule to the sea are, in a general way, much as they were. Watercourses, although they may be fairly permanent in general direction, are, however, subject to minor deflections. We shall have to consider this point when we come to that part of this paper dealing with the small stream that certainly, flowed past this site within recent years and was deflected into a dam to work a mill at Ronaldsway farm, at a later date, and gave its name to a house called "Ronaldsburn."
The rocky coast line, however, can be accepted as being the same when primitive man first put foot on this island, and the small stream of Ronaldsburn finding its way to the sea in Derbyhaven Bay. Its free access to the sea was eventually blocked by the gravel bank now there. This blocking would form a swamp which gradually crept as far inland as Ballasalla and linked itself up with the swampy lands around Ballasalla, the latter being eventually drained by the monks of Rushen Abbey. Very little obstruction of the Silverburn at a point below Ballasalla House would again turn the land round Ballasalla into a swamp and, in time of flood, the overflow would find its way into the Ronaldsburn, thereby increasing the volume of water into Derbyhaven Bay.
There can be little doubt that the land on the south of our site, now the aerodrome, was swamp within recent years; in fact, until the ground was levelled and drained during the present year, it was at some points impassable in the winter, and a careful examination of the subsoil during the excavation of a site nearby bears this out. Mr. Stenning will later report upon this examination. The subsoil being river gravel with a layer of sea sand immediately above it, and covered with a layer of sandy, cultivated soil. The whole of this land has been at one time covered with water, forming a lake, and which was ultimately silted up with sea sand blown in by the easterly gales.
The site I am dealing with is on rock forming a promontory jutting out into this swamp immediately to the South.
As already said, we are dealing with a site which has been in occupation from very early times. There can be no occupation of land without a reason in these days; that was also true in early times. Occupation means some kind of settled abode. What could be the reason for the occupation of this site in those times? The people who occupied it would come from the sea; they would come in boats.
The east coast of the Isle of Man may give fair shelter from the westerly gales; it is singularly lacking in shelter from the South and East. There is scarcely a place where a sailing boat could weather an easterly gale. Derbyhaven and Castletown Bays, taken together, give absolute shelter from all winds. The main land of the Island gives shelter from the West. Castletown Bay is sheltered by Langness from North-East and East, but is impossible to shipping during South-East and South gales. Derbyhaven Bay supplies perfect shelter from these two most dangerous winds under the lee of Langness; so, between the two Bays there is fine protection from all winds; in fact they supply the only natural shelter for such craft as would sail the sea in those days between the West coast of England and the East coast of Ireland.
The only thing that was lacking was a means of getting their craft from one bay to the other during a sudden gale. This means or "way" was easy, there being at one point between the two Bays, which is only a few yards, to be accurate 5 chains. and with a rise of only 32 feet. This "way" is shown on the Ordnance Survey by a road; this is no doubt Ronaldsway, or Reginalds Ford. There is no doubt whatever that Ronaldsway was a safe harbour during the Viking domination of the Isle of Man. The monks of Rushen are constantly referring to it as such. The ships of the Vikings could be easily man-handled over this narrow neck of land; such work was not unusual. One such episode is recorded in the Chronicle of Man, when Olave II., who was in exile, "dragged" his five ships "from the nearest sea-shore, which was two stades away" (about quarter of a mile). In the year 1228, Reginald came to St. Patrick's Isle "in the middle of the night in winter and burned his brother Olave's ships, and going round the Island remained in the harbour which is called Ronaldsway for about 40 days."
You will observe that Reginald's ships were able to ride in safety for 40 days in the winter. I venture to say that there is no other natural harbour where ships of the kind could do so without courting disaster.
RONALDSWAY would, therefore, be a most important haven for much of the shipping and traders from the South, possibly as far off as the Mediterranean, and from the North as well; we, therefore, should not be surprised if we found evidence of occupation over a very long period of time.
In the Spring of the present year, 1935, we appear to have stumbled upon such a site during the process of levelling the ground for the formation of an airport. The airport occupies the ground that we have shown was a swamp in early days. The work of levelling entailed the filling up of depressions and the lowering of rising ground. This levelling. unearthed and revealed much matter for consideration, especially some burials of a very early date, probably early pagan. Mr. Stenning will deal with these.
It also revealed the present site, which is marked on the Ordnance Survey as "site of battle between Magnus and the Manx, A.D. 1250." I think that is not quite correct. The battle between Magnus and the Manx was fought on St. Michael's Isle and is fully described in the Chronicle of Man and the Isles. The battle fought here was probably that between Alexander, King of Scotland, and the Manks. It is described in the Chronicle as follows: "In the year of our Lord 1275, on the seventh day of the month of October, Alexander, King of Scotland, moored his vessels at Ronaldsway in Mann and, on the following day battle was joined between the Manxmen and the Scottish, but, the Scottish being victors, killed in the conflict five hundred and thirty-seven of the Manxmen."
There seems little doubt that during the process of the digging, we have come across, at least, some of the aftermath of that battle.
I will now invite your attention to that portion of ground in this area that has come under special observation, and which, by the courtesy of the Ancient Monuments Trustees, through Mr. G. H. J. Neely, to whose generous help I am much indebted, I have been privileged to study.
The site in question is not of any great area; it is circular with a diameter of approximately 250 feet, and is the crown of a small hillock; and before it was uncovered presented a similar appearance to several other hillocks in the surrounding ground which is now the aerodrome; it was, however, rather higher than the others.
The levelling of the landing ground involved the filling-up of depressions by the material that had to be taken out in the work of reducing the rising ground. This rising ground was found to be mainly deposits of river drift covered by sand. The removal of these hillocks apparently did not furnish sufficient material to complete the filling of the depressions; the contractors, therefore, decided to get the extra material required by taking a slice of approximately six feet from the apex of this mound. To this end they started from nothing, approaching the crown from the south. The work was being done by a gang of some twenty men, using motor lorries. I mention this to indicate the difficulties that had to be faced by those looking after the antiquarian interests.
When the men had got into the ground to the depth of about two feet, a burial of human bones was unearthed. This discovery did not deter the advance of the work, but was noted. In the course of a very short time, another burial was found. and then several others; in fact, so many were being turned up that they became by this time somewhat handicapping to the advance of the work, especially as the contractors, the foreman and the workers themselves showed a considerable amount of hesitation between their duty to their job and the reverence due to the dead.
These burials were not enclosed in any coffin or cist, they having been simply buried in the ground. The bodies did not seem to have been altogether indecently buried, as they were oriented East and West.
As the work advanced towards the crown of the hillock, and the depth from the surface reached three feet, well formed lintel graves were exposed underneath the above-mentioned burials. A similar condition of burials were found at Rushen Abbey to the south of the site of the monastery, but with this difference, that at Rushen Abbey there were two layers of cist burials under the unenclosed skeletons.
It will be observed that two distinct periods of internment have been established on this site, indicating a period of careful and reverent burial, followed by a more lax reverence tea the dead. Whether this laxity was due to a religious decline or the necessities of massed burial I am not convinced, but I will show that these burials were those of some of the bodies of those who fell in the battle between the Scottish under Alexander in 1275 A.D., when 537 Manxmen are recorded as having been killed.
As regards the graves in the lower level: These were particularly well constructed, both sides and covering stones were of selected limestone, and in many cases the selection of the stones had obviously been very carefully made. Many of them had natural ornamentation produced by limpet erosions. Several of these stones presented an appearance so like human decoration that they had to be examined by persons of special knowledge to determine and convince the lay mind that they were natural. One of these stones is preserved in the Museum and may be seen there. As already stated, the bodies were buried with care and had obviously been laid out before rigor mortis had set in and then carefully placed in the grave; indeed, one could hardly resist the conclusion that they had been buried with ritualistic rites. This could not be said of the burials in the higher level.
I would like at this point to pay a tribute to the contractors and the men employed on the work of removal. The distress of mind shown by all engaged on this work was so great that it was decided to raise the level of the working so as to leave undisturbed any more of these lintel graves. I have no doubt that there are many more than those already revealed; also, that the raising of this level added a considerable sum to the cost of the work. The removal of the soil was continued towards the crown of the hillock at a depth of about three feet, leaving the level of the burials from further disturbance. As it advanced it was hindered-by numbers of heavy lime-stone slabs about 4 inches thick, many of which were removed and lost in the filled up depressions. Before it was too late, however, it was observed that these slabs were not accidental. They proved to be systematically laid out so as to form a paved floor such as is now used as a "crazy" pavement in modern gardens. The stones used varied from fifteen square feet to six square feet. This heavy stone construction had been mistaken by former farmers as rock, and gave rise to the idea that the hillock was rock, covered by two or three feet of soil, and which came to within eight inches from the surface at the crown. This belief caused the farmers to merely skim the surface when ploughing. One of the older men told me that when a lad he had been engaged in ploughing this land when his plough struck what he thought was a rock, and two of his ribs were fractured by the shock. To this belief no doubt is due the fact that this monument has not been completely destroyed in the course of cultivation.
As might have been expected, the main point of interest in this area was the crown of the hillock, which proved to contain two Gist graves of unusual formation and massiveness. The top of these graves reached to within 8 inches from the surface, and had, according to tradition, been struck by the plough numbers of times. They laid side by side in so close association with each other that they must have been constructed at the same time. They both were made of very large side stones, seven feet in length, three to four feet in width, and about five inches thick. The head and foot stones were in proportion as regards depth and thickness; but the headstone of that on the north was beautifully decorated with a stone cross, with three small crosses in one corner, representing the crucifixion of Christ and the two thieves. I believe that this cross is assigned to the 8th or 9th century. These two graves were filled with white stones to the top, varying in size from pigeon eggs to hen eggs.
It will be observed that there were no covering slabs on these graves. I think that we are justified in concluding there never were any, as the white stones filled the graves to overflowing, continuing in all directions for several yards and forming a layer of white stones quite 8 inches thick, and which covered the crown of the hillock immediately under the grass sod. There were several tons weight of them. Most of them have been saved and are still on the site for replacement if so desired.
When the graves had been emptied, we were surprised to find that they were constructed in two storeys or chambers, one superimposed on top of the other, the lower chamber being covered by a single large slab of limestone, and on lifting these slabs the skeletons were exposed. The lower chambers were more substantially made of better selected slabs of equal dimensions with the upper. These chambers 'were so well constructed that the silt due to percolation was very small and the skeletons stood well out to view. One could not but be impressed with the dignity of the whole monument viewed from the inside, and the importance of the persons were revealed by the dignity of their stately positions-at least, so it appeared to me. The skeleton in the northern grave has been left in the grave, and the one on the south has been sent to Dr. Cave, of the Royal College of Surgeons for report.
The soil on the south, east and west of these graves was removed down to the level of the lower chambers, when it was. found that they had been strengthened by two lime-stone pillars, one at the south-east corner and one at the south-west corner. These pillars were roughly dressed and made into a very good pair. Lying immediately to the south and closely associated with the grave on that side, were two children's graves; these squared with the larger graves and contained skeletons of children. On the west and east ends were two graves of adults, but these had no over-structure, and they seemed subordinate to the two principal graves. The ground surrounding these graves, so far as it has been examined, is paved with large lime-stone slabs, already referred to, to a radius of some 120 feet, with one clearly defined paved pathway approaching the centre from the east, and others indicated approaching it from the north and north-west, the whole indicating that we have discovered a monument that must have been of very great importance in its time. An interesting fact is, that this pavement had been broken up in a number of places, in the hollows of which were fire-hearths containing large quantities of ash and traces of extensive fire.
With a view to ascertaining the nature of the subsoil underlying the site it was thought desirable to cut several trenches, starting at the eastern extremity of the site. At the south-east corner, rock was struck at level of some four feet from the original ground level. These trenches were continued towards the west. In the south-west corner and 36 feet from the central monument, the foundations of a series of three circular buildings were found. The work of clearing this portion of the ground is not yet complete, and it is not possible to say how many more may be found, and it is too soon to attempt to assign these buildings to any period or to any use. These foundations are at a level of four feet from the original ground level, and well underneath the level of the pavements already referred to. They are quite circular, the largest having a diameter of 19 feet, and which has a definite bay on the northern side and exterior to the building. The others have evidence of similar bays. These bays are of such a size as could be used for sleeping dens, or "cubby holes"; but I would not like to hazard a guess as to their use. All of these huts show signs of a fire-hearth, a floor level of clay, and evidence of fire covering this level. It has been suggested that they might have been occupied and used for smelting, but I, personally, cannot see much evidence for such a conclusion. However, the fact that they have been inabited by an early people is almost certain, whose diet included an extensive use of shell-,fish, as they had left for our information a very large "kitchen midden" containing many thousands of limpet shells; there were also traces of animal bones. There were also found several bone pins, but until this portion of the ground is completely cleared it is unwise to come to any conclusion of date or use.
Within a very few feet from these foundations was found a group of cinerary urns, all of which had been compressed by earth pressure, and the texture of the clay was so weak that it was not possible to lift a single one whole; there were a great number of them, probably thirty. Each was collected as far as practicable,, in a separate basket, and they await reconstruction at leisure. There is enough decoration by which to identify their class, but this has not yet been done. Some showed signs of having been used for containing ashes, but this could not be said of all of them.
I am of opinion that these urns indicate the earliest period of occupation of this site. Although there were a number of flint chippings and rudely worked flints, the number does not justify our conclusion of an occupation of Stone Age people.
The occupation from the Bronze Age seems to have been continuous up to quite modern times, and occupation to have been so firmly established as to amount to a settlement.
They have left behind them evidence of their manner of living, their hunting, their fishing, their corn-grinding, their cooking, their decoratioin and primitive art, and after death their burial rites, as will be shown by a study of the list of objects found.
The objects of interest recovered from this site are numerous, amounting to several hundreds, but they must represent only a small proportion of those that were originally there. A careful search of the soil was impossible owing to the speed with which the work of removal of it was conducted; we are fortunate, however, to have recovered the number of objects we did.
I have endeavoured to make some classification of these objects for the purpose of this paper.
The Stone Age is represented by a number of flints. were found. They are very roughly worked, and were mainly of a domestic character-scrapers and the like. Weapons are not much in evidence, and what there were were found scattered over the whole site.
Mr. T. D. Kendrick, of the British Museum, reports on No. 177 as follows: "Your flint is the butt end of a flint axe or chisel. It probably belongs to the Neolithic period."The Bronze Age is represented by the large number of urns found, and possibly by some of the Jet Bracelets; but it is more likely that these Jet objects are Viking. The actual Bronze objects found are: 3 rings, 1 pin and 4 fragments of metal.
Although I do not suggest any Roman occupation, the influence of the Roman period is definitely felt, and carries the period of occupation on from the Bronze period to the early Christian times. Although the actual presence of the Romans is not without support. Mr Reginald Smith, of the British Museum, says: "The small bronze fragments are hard to place, but the curved pieces may be part of a late Roman bracelet. The glass fragment, bronze ring and part of the shale bracelet may all be Roman; and there is a hone stone (for razors). The green glass bead is of the proper shape and colour for Roman, and the bone pin may be contemporary.''
The evidence of early Christian influence and occupation is obvious and beyond any reasonable doubt. The lintel graves, themselves, would put this question beyond doubt. The Jet Bracelet, being found in conjunction with these graves, suggests a date, 250-400 A.D. Mr Reginald Smith says: "The jet bracelet is probably late Roman as the burials were not cremated; the ring-headed pin is also dated about 800 A.D."
The unenclosed burials that covered a large part of the ground at a level immediately under the cultivated soil are the burials resulting from the battle between the Scottish and the Manx in October, 1275. when 538 Manxmen were killed, and the Isle of Man passed to the Scots. This fact alone ought to make this site as sacred to the Manx as Culloden Moor is to the Scots.
Twenty-eight pieces of iron objects were recovered, several of which are undoubtedly portions of weapons, one javelin head being found still embedded in the bone of one of the skeletons.
With the exception of this battle, there was little evidence found of fighting in this place. There were discovered 5 sling stones, but these can hardly exclusively denote fighting; they might also indicate hunting.
The evidence of domestic occupation is, however, large. The number of fire-hearths and no less than nine pot-boiler stones for simmering meat; these, of course, were in use beÓore metal. pots. Portions of nine querns and 12-pounders, and four small milling stones. The mill-stones are too large to be used for hand-power, and again too small for water-power, we think; but these corn-grinding implements indicated a gradual development from primitive grinding to more advanced methods. There were other evidences of domestic occupation, viz.. two spindle whorls and a very large quantity of limpet shells in the kitchen middens, there being several hundredweights of them, representing many thousands of shell-fish consumed. enforcing our conclusion that people have lived, worked and died on this site during a period of marry- thousands of years, and have left behind them indications of their methods and manner -of living, as well as some suggestion, at least, of the rites of burial performed by the living over the dead in those far-off days, and it is for us to get what further information we can. from the material left to us.
WM. C. CUBBON.
| Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received MNB
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