The Prehistoric Village at Cladh Hallan - Part II

Ard marks

To sow the barley they used a simple plough, called an ard, which probably had a wooden share and would have been pulled by oxen. We found the traces of this ploughing in the form of a criss-cross arrangement of lines in the sand, called ard marks.

We know much less about the next period, between 1900 and 1300 BC. A few cremation urns (pots containing the cremated ashes of the dead) were found during the stone quarrying last century but none have survived. North of the track we found the final vestige of a settlement from this period but it had been all but destroyed by sand quarrying. It is a very enigmatic and mysterious period because, as we were to find out, it was a time when prehistoric Hebrideans developed the art of preserving bodies by mummification.

Cremation appears to have been the most popular funerary rite during the Bronze Age throughout Britain. It was also the most popular here, which is extraordinary given that the Uists were almost entirely deforested by this time. The bodies had to be cremated on a pyre of peat and limited quantities of driftwood. Around 1300 BC, on the site south of the track, there was a cremation cemetery. Five of their simple burials of ashes and peat soot have been recovered. There were no grave goods other than a few pottery sherds in one of them but two were enclosed by single rings of small stones.

We don't know who these people were or how they died but their cemetery was the starting point of a settlement which flourished for almost a thousand years on this spot. During that time, the flat ground of the cemetery grew into a huge settlement forming a great mound of debris and abandoned houses 80 metres in diameter and 2 metres high.

The first house to be built was a small boat-shaped or U-shaped dwelling, about 6.7 metres long and up to 3.7 metres wide. The builders must have known about the cremation graves because these were still visible and they chose to site the house's fireplace directly on top of one of these burials. The house's roof was supported by wooden posts along the walls and the fireplace was placed halfway along the house but off-centre towards one side. This house must have been one of the very last of its kind to be built. This U-shaped plan seems to have been a local building tradition confined to the Western Isles and in use since 2000 BC. After it was burnt down and demolished it was replaced by round houses constructed in a completely different manner.

The transition from U-shaped house to roundhouses at Cladh Hallan was not immediate. The ground was ploughed and then a sequence of temporary, unheated shacks was built. The third and last of these was a tiny roundhouse, a 'prototype' as if someone was practicing with a scaled-down version of the real thing. Directly on top of it a whole row of roundhouses was constructed in about 1000 BC.

The terraced row of roundhouses at Cladh Hallan built c. 1000 BC

This row of roundhouses is remarkable for several reasons. Unlike the U-shaped house, these were constructed in monumental form, with thick walls of sand faced with stones and with floors sunken below ground. They were each three times bigger than the U-shaped house and were built together as a terrace sharing party walls. Their roofs must have required vast quantities of long timbers - presumably driftwood - together with turf and reeds. Just how many houses were in the row is uncertain. Only the northern three houses in the mound have been excavated and the edge of a fourth has been located. There is room on the south, unexcavated side of the mound for another three, so the row consisted of between four and seven houses.

What is perhaps most startling about the roundhouses is the elaborate activity that accompanied their foundation. To dig out the great circular holes in which they sat was no mean feat but first of all a line of closely spaced large pits was dug and filled in along the east side on a northeast-southwest axis. Those digging these pits appear to have used the summit of Ben Mhor as a sightline to follow. The pits were immediately filled in again with clean sand. One contained a pot and another had fragments of a human skull and cremated bones but otherwise they were empty. Why they dug these pits is a mystery.

The next stage was the most dramatic. After the pits were filled in, the house interiors were dug out, each to the depth where they encountered the tops of buried occupation layers from earlier centuries. It was as if they were founding their new village on the past rather than by destroying those remains of the past. Into pits dug in the bottom of each house went human skeletons. The skeleton of a sheep was also buried under the north house.