The Prehistoric Village at Cladh Hallan - Part III

Cladh Hallan mummification

The bodies buried under the houses - evidence of prehistoric mummification

The middle house's human foundation deposit was the corpse of a young teenager, probably a girl. Her body was placed in a crouched position on its right side. Her fragile skeleton yielded no indication of how she had died. More surprising were the other three skeletons, one under the south house and two under the north.

The child buried under the south house was only 3 months old but it had died about 300-200 years earlier. Its bones were no longer joined together except for the spine and pelvis and it had no doubt rotted long before it was buried.

The two burials under the north house were both adults and had similarly died centuries before. One was a woman aged about 40 and her crouched body appears to have been tightly wrapped for the 300 years during which it was kept before burial. Sometime after death, her upper lateral incisors (the two teeth next to her front teeth) were removed and placed in each hand.

The other burial was the most extraordinary of all. It was the skeleton not of one man but of three. The head and neck was of one man, the jaw from a second and the rest of the body from a third. The head and jaw, like the woman and infant, were about 300-400 years old before burial but the body belonged to a man who had died 500 years earlier. The only way that these skeletons could have maintained their form over so many centuries was if some of the connective soft tissue had remained intact. In the western Scottish climate, even if the weather was slightly better than today, this would not have been possible without artificial preservation of the flesh. There was no sign that the mummification methods were anything like as complex as those practised in Ancient Egypt at that time and this appears to have been an entirely local innovation.

Scientific analysis of the bones indicates that the body started to rot but this decay was abruptly halted, most likely by evisceration - removal of the entrails. Demineralisation of the bone's surface indicates that the body was then placed in an acidic environment for a year or so. This was most likely a peat bog - the corpse was turned into a 'bog body' and was then retrieved and kept for hundreds of years. Just where these 'bog mummies' were put is a mystery - was there a special house for them or did they share with the living, sitting among the rafters as in some cultures today? How the man's body came to lose its head and be given another with a new jaw is anyone's guess!

Life in the roundhouses

Living on top of dead bodies might seem like a strange thing to do. Each house was a dwelling with a central fireplace and a peat floor but there were differences between them. We do not know whether each was inhabited by a family - a large, extended family given the size - or by groups divided on the basis of age, gender or social status.

The middle house was the largest and the longest lived in. Eight successive floors were laid, together with complete rebuildings, over a 600 year period until its abandonment in about 400 BC. Its inhabitants were well off, constructing a front porch and scattering across the floor fragments of clay moulds from casting bronze swords, spears and ornaments. When the house was first rebuilt they made an offering on the floor of three bronze chisels. During its fourth to fifth phase, they sacrificed two dogs and buried them under the floor along with cremated sheep.

The north house was rebuilt twice and thereafter a series of flimsy buildings occupied the spot. Although it had a central fireplace it was not entirely a normal dwelling. Before construction of its third phase a newborn baby was buried under the floor and nine postholes contained pieces of cremated human bone. To cap it all there was a cremation pyre platform - where bodies were burnt - directly outside the door. This 'house of the dead' seems to have been intimately linked with death and perhaps the people who lived here - whether part-time or permanently - were priestly or ritual specialists.

The south house was the smallest and the poorest, and also the shortest lived. After only one phase it was abandoned. Unlike the bronze bracelet left on the floor of the north house or the chisels in the middle house, the only offerings here were two large stone chopping tools. After this house had filled with windblown sand it was turned into a field for ploughing and spade-digging.

The daily diet - more turf than surf

Barley was the staple crop and could be grown on the machair (right next to the houses!) and on the overlap of machair and peatlands to the east. It was most likely eaten as porridge or gruel rather than bread, since there is no evidence for baking. There were probably few vegetables other than pulses, greens and certain wild species of roots, shoots and leaves. The cattle bones are mostly those of young calves and a few older cows. This suggests that they were keeping milking herds. The importance of milk in their lives has been confirmed by the discovery of bovine casein - a protein in cow's milk - inside many of the cooking pots. Lamb was the most frequently eaten meat, followed by veal. They were also eating young deer, probably managing the deer herds rather than merely hunting them. Pork was also eaten but in smaller quantities. The nitrogen isotope levels in people's bones indicate that animal proteins - from milk, meat and perhaps also blood - were important elements of their diet, though perhaps animals were killed for special occasions rather than on a daily basis. The strontium isotope levels indicate that these people exploited the machair and not the peatlands and hills to the east.

The sea is one of the richest resources of the islands. Limpets and winkles could be picked off the rocks on the west coast, scallops and crabs could be fished on the east coast, and cockles could be harvested from the tidal strand east of the site, now an inland freshwater loch, Loch Hallan. There were sea fish that could be caught with nets and fish traps and occasional seals, stranded whales and sea birds. Surprisingly, very little fish was eaten. There are not many fish bones from the site, even though they are well preserved in the shell sand, and carbon isotope levels in the human bones indicate that seafood was never more than 10% of the diet.

Living in a roundhouse - more than bread alone

The decision to adopt roundhouse architecture seems to have been rather more involved than, say, deciding to build a bungalow today. Houses were built to very specific arrangements and there were strong social rules about how people behaved in them. Where the cooking, working and sleeping areas were arranged was fixed for everyone, not just at Cladh Hallan but throughout Britain and Ireland during the first millennium BC. On the Continent prehistoric architecture was rectangular but the inhabitants of Britain built roundhouses, having previously built circular monuments in wood and stone. Many of those earlier monuments in the preceeding periods of the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age seem to have been linked to the sun and its movements.

For some time, archaeologists have suspected that roundhouse architecture was not simply functional but embodied religious beliefs about the world and about the cyclical passage of time. The organisation of space within the Cladh Hallan roundhouses has confirmed this hunch. Throughout Britain and Ireland, most roundhouses face east or southeast, away from the prevailing westerly winds and also towards the rising sun. The interior layout is surprisingly uniform, from the English south coast to the Hebrides and Orkney.

In these east-facing houses the passage of the sun around the sky is echoed in the siting of activities around the house. Daytime tasks of cooking and working were carried out exclusively on the south side - when the sun was high in the sky - whilst the sleeping area (a large, low platform of springy machair turf on which everyone slept together) was on the north side where the sun disappears below the horizon. More specifically, the cooking area is located in the southeast, associated with the start of the day. Even though the house interiors were dark and windowless, the daytime domestic chores were carried out indoors and not outside the entrance.

It was not only this sunwise daily cycle that was built into the house but also the cycle of life, from birth to death. The underfloor burials of humans and dogs were made in the northeast quadrants as were the 'closing' offerings of bronze artefacts. The only exception to this was the burial of the woman in the north house but this may reflect the special association with death that this house seems to have had. There is even evidence, from lines of stones placed on the floor, that people entering the houses were directed to move in a sunwise direction inside them.

All of the houses at Cladh Hallan faced east except for one small building (under the south roundhouse) which faced west. This did not have a fireplace and must have been cold and drafty. There are a few other roundhouses in the Western Isles, mostly of later dates (c. 200 BC - AD 400), which also had west-facing doorways. One of these is on top of a hill at Clettraval on North Uist, built into the back of a prehistoric tomb, and it must have been exceptionally uncomfortable! Where evidence survives, these houses facing the wrong way still abided by the same arrangement of interior activities in relation to the position of the doorway. Why they were arranged to face the opposite direction to everyone else we do not know. One theory is that they were the houses of druids, who performed their work at night.

The end of the settlement

After the south and north houses had been abandoned, the middle house continued to be lived in until about 400 BC but its final rebuilding left it without a fireplace. At this time there was a roundhouse to the east of the long-abandoned south house and another, very unusual double-roundhouse was constructed on the northeast edge of the mound. It had a fireplace in its east room but there was no bed. At its west end there was a large stone-lined niche whose floor was covered in soot. Analysis of the tiny debris on the floor indicates that this was most likely a smokery for fish and perhaps meat. Across the modern track about 200m to the northwest another double-roundhouse was also built around 400 BC and was used for casting bronze.

Thereafter, the whole settlement was abandoned. Settlement mounds 300-400 metres to the south and north are perhaps two of the places to which people moved. Yet they may also have moved further afield. Around this time the settlement pattern of South Uist changed dramatically. From living in three main areas of settlement - in the south, middle and north of the island - people now spread out their dwellings all along the machair, evenly spaced at an average distance apart of one kilometre. With a growing population this was probably a rationalisation of land use and enabled each new community to have an east-west strip across the island, the prelude to the township arrangement of land holding which survived until the Clearances of the 19th century.

Visiting the site

You can see the outlines of the terraced row of roundhouses in the former sand quarry, reconstructed in stone. Don't forget that the area excavated is just a small part of a much bigger settlement - about 90% of the mound has not yet been excavated. If you walk over the top of the mound, south of the excavated area, you will get a good idea of its former size. The remains of the better preserved of the two double-roundhouses can be visited on the north side of the track, about 200 metres nearer the sea. It was built on top of a sand dune but now stands isolated by the quarry around it. Please take care when visiting - ankles are easily twisted by stumbling into a rabbit burrow when walking on the machair.

Finding Cladh Hallan

The site can be reached from Kildonan Museum by driving south to Daliburgh (Dalabrog). Take the right turn at the Borrodale Hotel and immediately turn right again, past the public bar's car park, on the road which leads westwards. Past St Peter's Church, Daliburgh, turn right again at the T-junction and head for the radiomast. At the radio mast, just before reaching the modern graveyard, turn left along the sandy track and follow it for about 500 metres. You may find it best to park at the radio mast and walk along this track but it is normally driveable. As the track swings round to the left you will be able to see the main site on your left (south) and the smaller site a couple of hundred metres further on to your right. Park along the road on the flat of the quarry area north of the track but be careful not to get stuck!

The project

Sheffield's excavations in the Cladh Hallan sand quarries started in 1988 and 1989 under the direction of Eddie Moth. Work began again in 1994, directed by Dr Mike Parker Pearson of Sheffield University, Dr Jacqui Mulville of Cardiff University and Dr Helen Smith of Bournemouth University with help from Southampton, Bradford and Oxford Universities and King Alfred's College, Winchester. The scientific analyses on the mummies were carried out by Dr Oliver Craig and Dr Matthew Collins of Newcastle University, Dr Carolyn Chenery and Dr Janet Montgomery of Bradford University, Jennifer Hiller of Stirling University, and Dr Jane Evans of the British Geological Survey. Funding has been provided by Historic Scotland, the Natural Environment Research Council and the BBC. The following have provided help and/or advice over the years: Comann Eachdraidh Uibhist a Deas (South Uist Historical Society), Kildonan Museum, South Uist Estates, Uist Builders Construction Ltd., Laing Motors, the Western Isles Council and many members of the local community whose interest and support have been vital to the success of this project.

Funded by Historic Scotland.