Ancient, Ancient Ways

Prehistoric Burnt Mounds, What are They?

The phrase “burnt mounds” describes a type of ancient site found throughout the British Isles and parts of Western Europe, characterised by accumulations of stones that have been altered by fire.

These stones often show signs of fracturing due to repeated exposure to high temperatures. Frequently, a substantial amount of charcoal is found intermingled with the stones, suggesting that these mounds accumulated as a byproduct of a repetitive activity involving fire that took place nearby.

Through radiocarbon dating, it has been established that burnt mounds were created from the Neolithic period through to the Iron Age, predominantly during the early Bronze Age (circa 2000 BC).

These mounds typically share certain features, including the presence of timber or stone troughs. It is believed that these troughs were used to boil water, achieved by placing the heated stones within them.


Early Finds

These mounds, characterised by their collections of fire-cracked stones and charcoal, first drew attention in the 19th century, a period rich in antiquarian interest but limited by the rudimentary archaeological methodologies of the time.

Burnt Mound at Symbister, Shetland Islands, Scotland. One of three burnt mounds indicated on the 1:25,000 OS mapping. This was a smaller mound. Often features like this are marked on maps yet are hard to find.

Initially encountered during agricultural expansion or the early throes of industrial development, these sites presented a puzzle that piqued the interest of those who stumbled upon them.

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Without the advantages of modern excavation techniques or analytical tools, early observers of burnt mounds were propelled by curiosity into a realm of speculation, second guessing and wild ideas about the origins and functions of these prehistoric remnants.

Descriptions from this era often focused on the physical characteristics of the mounds, highlighting the peculiar presence of charred wood alongside fractured stones, yet the purpose behind their construction remained elusive, and you can understand why. A number of initial theories emerged to explain the existence of burnt mounds.

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Some suggested that these sites were ancient cooking places, where heated stones were perhaps used to boil water for food preparation—a theory supported by the proximity of many mounds to water sources, which would have been a practical necessity for such activities. Anyone who has watched the TV programs by Ray Mears would have seen the technique of boiling water with heated stones.

Early Archaeologists

Others ventured that the mounds served more specialised or even ritualistic roles, suggesting uses ranging from textile dyeing or leather processing to functioning as saunas or steam baths for ceremonial purposes. These early theories, while diverse, were largely speculative, shaped by the limited insights available to the historians.

Sanday - Meur Burnt Mound, Lady Village - Hearth & Trough
Sanday – Meur Burnt Mound, Lady Village – Hearth & Trough

As archaeological methods advanced, so too did the approach to understanding burnt mounds. The introduction of radiocarbon dating and more sophisticated excavation techniques in the 20th century transformed the field, allowing for a more nuanced understanding of these ancient sites.

Burnt Mounds & Radiocarbon Dating

The transition from early speculations to a more systematic study of burnt mounds marked an important shift in the archaeological investigation of these ancient structures. This shift was significantly propelled by the advent of radiocarbon dating, a technological breakthrough that provided a robust method for determining the age of organic materials found within and around the mounds.

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The integration of radiocarbon dating into the study of burnt mounds allowed archaeologists to place these features within a more precise chronological framework, offering insights into the periods of their construction and use.

Reconstruction of the Meur Burnt Mount The original burnt mound at Meur was first exposed by coastal erosion in 2005.
Reconstruction of the Meur Burnt Mount. The original burnt mound at Meur was first exposed by coastal erosion in 2005.

Radiocarbon dating results revealed that while the majority of burnt mounds dated to the Bronze Age, their use spanned a wider temporal range, encompassing both earlier Neolithic and later periods.

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Burnt Mounds

The systematic study of burnt mounds also benefited from advancements in excavation techniques. Archaeologists began to employ more refined stratigraphic approaches, carefully documenting the layers of deposits and the spatial relationships between different components of the mounds.

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By examining the sequence of deposits, researchers could infer changes in the use of the site over time, variations in construction methods, and potentially identify distinct phases of activity.

A burnt mound in the Orkney Islands
A burnt mound in the Orkney Islands

Furthermore, systematic studies expanded beyond the mounds themselves to include the surrounding landscapes. Understanding the environmental context became a crucial aspect of interpreting the function and significance of burnt mounds.

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Archaeologists explored the proximity of mounds to water sources, the availability of stones for heating, and the landscape features that might have influenced the selection of sites for mound construction.

Regional Variations of Burnt Mounds

While the core characteristics of burnt mounds – accumulations of fire-cracked stones, charcoal, and often associated water features – are consistent, the scale, construction methods, and environmental contexts of these sites exhibit significant regional differences.

In the uplands of Scotland, for example, burnt mounds are often found in locations that exploit the natural topography, such as beside streams or at the edge of small lochs.

Remains of an ancient building, uncovered beneath the burnt mound.
Remains of an ancient building, uncovered beneath the burnt mound. South Ronaldsay, Orkney

The abundance of water in these areas would have been a critical factor in the siting of mounds, given the necessity of water for the heating process.

Conversely, in the lowlands of southern England, burnt mounds are frequently located in closer proximity to human settlements, suggesting a different pattern of use or social significance.

Specialised Activities

Here, the mounds might be part of a broader landscape of settlement and agriculture, indicating a more integrated role within the community. The environmental context of these mounds, including the types of vegetation and availability of fuel for fire, would have influenced how they were constructed and used.

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The distribution of burnt mounds across different regions also points to varied practices and purposes. In some areas, the concentration of mounds suggests communal or ritualistic uses, where the process of heating water and stones may have had social or ceremonial importance beyond mere utility.

In other regions, the isolated nature of mounds might indicate more specialised activities, possibly related to transient occupations or seasonal activities.

Cruester Burnt Mound, Bressay.
Reconstruction of a Bronze Age burnt mound – these are common in Shetland. Burnt mounds may have been used in tanning – hot stones may have been rolled into the stone tubs to heat water during the prehistoric tanning process. they may also have been used to cook food and to wash fleeces.

Archaeological Significance of Burnt Mounds

Burnt mounds challenge our perceptions of ancient technology and resource use. The process of creating these features—particularly the technique of heating stones to boil water—illustrates a sophisticated understanding of heat, materials, and water management.

This knowledge speaks to a level of technological competence that belies simplistic notions of prehistoric societies as technologically primitive.

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Whether used for cooking, crafting, or ceremonial purposes, the activities conducted at burnt mound sites were likely integral to the social fabric of the communities that built them.

As such, these sites can offer clues about social hierarchy, communal activities, and even the distribution of labour within ancient societies. The more we learn the more we see that these societies were far more sophisticated than the ‘Caveman’ image that was taught in history books.

Burnt Mounds a Better Understanding

As archaeological methodologies evolve and new discoveries emerge, researchers are poised to address lingering questions and explore new facets of burnt mounds that have yet to be fully understood. As yet, no one has a real answer of the purpose of these mounds.

One promising avenue for future research involves the application of advanced analytical techniques to extract more detailed information from the materials associated with burnt mounds.

Techniques such as isotopic analysis, microscopy, and geochemical fingerprinting can provide insights into the origins of the stones used, the sources of the charcoal, and the types of materials processed at these sites.

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These analyses can reveal details about ancient trade networks, resource extraction practices, and environmental management strategies employed by the communities that built and used burnt mounds.

The integration of environmental and paleoclimatic data represents another significant direction for future research.

Landscape Context of Burnt Mounds

Such studies can also shed light on the impact of human activities on ancient ecosystems, contributing to broader discussions about sustainability and environmental change.

Emerging technologies, including remote sensing, LiDAR, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), offer exciting opportunities for the identification and mapping of burnt mound sites.

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These technologies can reveal previously unknown sites and provide detailed topographical data that enhances our understanding of the spatial organisation and landscape context of burnt mounds.

Burnt Mounds in Scotland

Scotland boasts over 1900 recorded burnt mound sites, with significant clusters found in the Shetland and Orkney Islands, Caithness and Sutherland in the north, and Dumfries and Galloway in the south. The distribution of these sites has been linked to the historical spread of hot stone technologies.

Yet, it’s important to recognise that these concentrations largely overlap with regions recently surveyed by the Royal Commission.

Observations indicate a potential under-representation of sites in the west of Scotland, where discoveries have often been incidental to development projects rather than the result of targeted surveys. This suggests the possible existence of more sites than currently acknowledged.

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The inconsistency in the recording and recognition of burnt mounds across Scotland has historically varied. Before the late 1960s and early 1970s mapping revisions in Orkney and Shetland, few burnt mounds were recorded on the mainland due to limited awareness among OS field sections. A subsequent increase in recordings, particularly after surveys in the East Rhins, underscores the evolving understanding and identification of these sites.

Descriptions of burnt mound shapes in the records vary, using terms like U-shaped, crescentic, kidney-shaped, or banana-shaped to describe the classic crescent formation. Other shapes noted include oval and circular, with less common forms like pear or triangular being rare.

Northern Isles

Approximately 65% of the site records include mound size data, shedding light on the sites’ dimensions and suggesting varied intensities of use. Most mounds are smaller than 20m3, although sizes can reach up to 900m3, as seen at Vaasetter in Fair Isle.

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This size variability hints at regional differences in mound usage and suggests that smaller mounds, found in higher densities, might indicate episodic activities rather than continuous use over time.

Despite detailed examination of less than 3% of recorded sites, those studied reveal significant diversity and complexity. Excavations in Orkney and Shetland have uncovered intricate internal structures and a variety of associated artifacts.

Furthermore, research in the Northern Isles has not only extended the chronological range of burnt mounds beyond the Bronze Age but also highlighted successive construction and usage phases, offering insights into the sites’ complex histories.

Additionally, geophysical surveys have proven magnetometry to be effective in identifying burnt mound structures, opening new avenues for detecting and understanding these archaeological features. This evolving research landscape underscores the need for continued exploration and reassessment of Scotland’s burnt mounds, promising deeper insights into prehistoric life and technology.