[J Manx Museum vol III #48 pp132/134 - 1936]

Excavations on Peel Hill in 1878.

A hitherto Unpublished Account. Pottery, Bronze, Flint, etc.

The following account of excavations on Peel Hill was sent to Lord Raglan in 1908 by Mr. W. J. Andrew, F.S.A., hon. secretary of the British Numismatic Society. Lord Raglan sent it on to Mr. P. M. C. Kermode, among whose papers the M.S. has recently been found. The account is told in an interesting manner, and as the information is of considerable value it is thought well to put it on record. Where the objects recovered from the graves were scattered no one now knows.

The author of the account is thought by Mr. Andrew to have been a Richard Wood, J.P., of Plumpton Hall, Heywood, Lancashire, and it was written in the year 1878. So many excavations have been made of sepulchral sites in the island without any record having been made that it is a pleasure to come across such an account as this, written by an evidently keen and intelligent observer, although not in the front rank of antiquaries. There is a reference to the incident in 'Mona's Herald,' 7th Aug., 1878.

DURING the summer of this year circumstances led me to visit that most ancient and fish perfumed village of Peel. With the usual fate of those who have nothing to do I speedily fell into mischief. While rambling one day in the grounds of the Castle, whose varied and interesting antiquities afford abundant scope for imagination and reflection, I was attracted by some peculiarities of the flag staff mound, which I believe will some day be found to be a not unimportant tumulus.

My curiosity being excited, I was led to examine the adjacent hill, as a locality most likely to be selected by the early inhabitants for their interments. A critical survey of the ground appeared to indicate the remains of seven tumuli, but so much abraded by the elements or the spade as to conceal them from ordinary or unskilled observation and to make it very uncertain. I took the great liberty of opening four, those which appeared the most uncertain, and found my suspicions verified. From their situation and size two of the tumuli appeared to be of earlier date and greater importance than the others, which occupied less conspicuous sites and were smaller. Time did not permit more than a superficial examination of four of them, so that I sought only for the earliest or central interment, taking no measures to examine the rest of the mounds to see if there were any later or secondary burials. But I am of opinion, from the uneven nature of the ground and protruding rock that in the grave mounds on the hill there are no secondary burials, and that each tumulus covers a single interment. It is not possible from the examination I made, and from the deterioration they have suffered, to express any decided opinion on this point. The entire covering of one grave near Corrin's Tower had been so completely removed as to leave bare the sepulchral cist; in two others the interments were - one about nine inches and the other about two feet from the surface, so that secondary interments may have been removed. It would be well if the Archeological Commission which the active and intelligent Governor of the Island has formed, would not only survey its antiquities but would also carefully examine and record such as are in danger of destruction.

Of the four mounds examined one only was barren of results. The broad characteristics of the other three were much alike; there was an almost entire absence of charcoal in the mound, only a very few burnt twigs here and there remained; there were very few flint implements or chippings. Each interment had been made in a small Gist composed of thin slabs of the local rock covered by a heavier slab. All the bodies were partially cremated so as to leave the bones in such a state that they could easily be distinguished from each other; and if I might venture an opinion, founded on the slight knowledge I possess, they were those of persons in the prime of life. Notwithstanding these common features, there was such diversity as to show that they were of different periods of time.

To describe them in detail : the tumulus nearest the castle, I think the latest in time, was about twelve yards in diameter and only two feet high. The whole of the upper part had been removed. It had at some time been very unskilfully opened, for at less than ten inches from the surface I came across the fragments of what had been a large, thick urn, made of a very coarse clay and gravel. A little lower was a larger portion of it inverted over the cremated remains, which had evidently not been disturbed, and had after cremation been carefully gathered together and deposited on the level of rock.

Underneath these remains was a portion of a fine bronze spear, about two inches long and 1¼ inches broad, so thoroughly corroded that it fell in pieces. The urn was without any ornamentation whatever, except a small rim about two inches from the lip, and so broken that it was impossible to restore it. On the mound were found a thinnish flint and a few flint chippings. There was no protection for the remains of the body save the urn and a small covering stone.

The second mound was on the crest of the hill and must originally have been a conspicuous object from both the sea and land. After re-moving 12 inches of soil I came on a covering of loose stones about two feet in depth. Re-moving these I dug four feet through beach sand interspersed with a few rolled pebbles and flint flakes and came on two grit stones, evidently the covering of an interment. On raising these a small well-made cist about 14 inches square and 18 inches deep was seen.

In the centre was a large inverted urn, perfect, but of such coarse materials that even with the greatest care all attempts to remove it did not prevent its falling into fragments. Sufficient, however, was collected to show its form, size and ornamentation. Under the urn was the greater part, but not all, the remains of a burnt body, which had clearly been burnt on the spot and afterwards had been placed on a thick sod the size of the cist and then covered with the urn. The spaces between the sides of the cist and the urn had been filled to the depth of two inches with selected small white beach pebbles, There were no weapons or implements of any kind in the grave.

The urn is an interesting specimen, hand-made of a mixture of clay and gravel. It was 12 inches high, 12½, inches diameter at the mouth, and 3¾ inches diameter at the base. From the smallness and uneven character of the base it was evidently never formed to stand upright, but was made for the purpose it served - an inverted funeral urn. The rim is near one inch thick and like every part of the surface is ornamented in the crudest manner, but with some artistic idea, with lines disposed chevron-wise and formed by the point of a stick. Round the upper part are three projecting rims ornamented with punctured holes produced by a blunt stick or the edge of a stone.

This ornamentation, rude as it is, is of ail advanced character, being more profuse than is generally found on the earliest urns, yet I should ascribe to it a very high antiquity. The form of the urn, the coarseness of its texture, the absence of any regularity of design, though such has been attempted, and the primitive tools employed in its ornamentation as well as the character of it, are clear indications of a Celtic origin, and think of pre-Christian ages. It must certainly be ranked amongst the rudest and early efforts at graphic art of a primitive race. .

My experience of the last tumulus prepared me to expect a hard day's work at number three, which was situated only a few yards from number two, but after removing a shallow covering of earth and the usual layer of stones, I came at a depth of two feet on a large slab of the local rock, which required all the strength of two of us to remove. The kist under it was of the same size and character as the last, and in the centre of it, without any covering but that of the kist lay, the white and incomplete remains of a cremated body, which had been deposited on a layer of small white beach pebbles covering a sod.

At the S.W. corner of the kist and in contact with the remains was a cracked but otherwise perfect beautiful incense cup, mouth upwards and filled to the edge with an unctuous and different soil to the surrounding soil. Protruding from it were two bones sufficiently distinct for recognition. Beyond this nothing had been interred with the body, while in the mound there were few chippings of flint. It was clear that the earth in this cup had been originally- placed in it and had not filtered through any crevices. For what object had it been originally- placed there, and what had it contained, It is impossible to say. That it was used at the ceremony is evident from its containing a portion of the burnt bones. That it was not a domestic vessel is equally apparent. That it was considered of some importance is proved by the fine paste and the elaborate decoration almost always found on this class of vessel. At the same time they are rarely found, and with both burnt and un-burnt bodies, rarely with the latter. It has been supposed that they were used to carry the sacred fire in to light the funeral pile, or to contain the viscira or heart of the deceased. Nothing, how-ever, has been discovered with them to indicate their use.

They have these features in common, they are small in size, highly decorated, of a superior quality of clay, and are often marked at the base with one form or other of the Cross. In the specimen before us the ornamentation is profuse, covering all the cup, which has been effected by fine twisted thongs of leather - or a string made of some fine fibre - and by a thumb or finger nail pressed on the clay before firing. The figure at the bottom is a rude attempt at a form of the Cross.

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