The dating and phasing of the timber circle complex at Ballynahatty, Co. Down

  • Sarah Gormley

Student thesis: Masters ThesisMaster of Philosophy


This thesis sets out to present and analyse the remains excavated from the timber circle complex at Ballynahatty, and to define and clarify the phases uncovered. The site forms part of the henge tradition, an assemblage of sites and artefacts well defined in Britain and yet so poorly understood in Ireland. It was only with the recent discovery of the timber circles at Knowth, Co. Meath and Ballynahatty, Co. Down, that the presence of a timber circle and Grooved Ware tradition on this island has been fully recognised. Ballynahatty is an integral part of the meagre corpus of excavated sites representing, not only this tradition, but also the end of the Neolithic in Ireland as a whole, and so it is vital that the results and interpretation be presented in order to elucidate this period. By providing an in depth analysis of this particular site, it is hoped to pave the way toward a greater understanding of this impressive ceremonial monument, and the implications for the study of the Late Neolithic in Ireland.

The townland of Ballynahatty is situated in the north-east of Ireland, within the lowland area of the Lagan Valley (Fig. 1.1; IG ref. J326677). The valley is enclosed by the higher ground surrounding it: to the north, the landscape is dominated by the termination of the Antrim basalt plateau, as the summits of Divis, Black Mountain, Squire’s Hill and Cave Hill overlook the Lagan; to the south, the landscape is characterised by the rolling hills of the Castlereagh plateau. The soil covering is glacially derived sand and gravel, typically laid down by melt water close to, or beneath, an ice sheet. The townland of Ballynahatty itself extends 100ha in area and lies on carboniferous rock of basal permian sandstone and brockram. Its boundary is formed by the River Lagan and Purdys Burn to the north, and the Giant’s Ring enclosure to the south. Much of the townland makes up a discrete platform, 40m high, and while the land falls away steeply from this to the south and east, there is a more gradual decline to the north-west and the River Lagan.

The townland was the focus for much prehistoric ritual activity, certainly in the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age. Only three archaeological features, however, are still prominent in the landscape: the vast earthen enclosure known as the Giant’s Ring, one of the largest monuments of its kind in Ireland, at around 200m in diameter (Collins 1954). This sub- circular area is enclosed by a bank 4m high, which now has seven breaks or hollows separating it into seven segments. The remains of a passage tomb lie off-centre within the enclosure, and a standing stone measuring over 1.8m high (dope et al 1966, 96) survives from a recently removed field boundary.

Work undertaken in the 1990s by Barrie Hartwell at Ballynahatty uncovered arguably one of the most fascinating monuments excavated in Ireland in recent years. Revealed were the remains of an elaborate timber structure with a double outer ring of postholes enclosing an area 100m x 70m, and a double ringed inner enclosure, 16m in diameter, which encloses four large corner posts and a central platform. A complex entrance or ‘annexe’ was also uncovered which was flanked by a fagade of posts standing a massive 7m tall (Hartwell 1998, 40). Recent publications on the excavation have begun to detail the likely ceremonial and possible funerary nature of the remains which have been dated to the Late Neolithic period (ibid; 2002); excavations, however, continued until 2000, and therefore a detailed study of the site, and the artefact assemblages which it yielded, is now timely.
Date of Award2004
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SupervisorBarrie Hartwell (Supervisor)

Cite this