Case Study: Cladh Hallan

At Cladh Hallan, on the island of South Uist, a row of substantial roundhouses with central fireplaces and sharing party walls was built around 1200 BC; three of these have been excavated (Parker Pearson et al. 2004, 64-82).  Foundation deposits comprising human remains marked the construction of each building: a pit in the central house contained the crouched burial of a young teenager, while the infant buried beneath the southern house had died some 2-3 centuries before this building was erected, indicating – as we have seen at Covesea – the curation of human remains, including those of children.  Perhaps most significant were two burials from the northern house.  One of these was an adult woman whose body had been kept tightly wrapped for some 300 years prior to deposition in this building.  The second burial comprised a ‘body’ made up of bones from three different individuals who had also died several centuries before burial: the head and neck belonged to one man, the jaw to another, and the rest of the body to a third.  It has been suggested that the two burials from this house may have been mummified.  The lack of bacterial damage to the bones of the second burial suggested evisceration, while demineralisation of the bone surfaces hints that preservation of soft tissue (which would have kept the bodies intact) may have been facilitated by temporary deposition in an acidic environment such as a peat bog (Parker Pearson et al. 2005).

A ground plan of 3 conjoined sub-circular structures with walls of sand showing the location of hearths and burials, and a cremation pyre to the exterior

The row of houses at Cladh Hallan showing the location of the human foundation burials (after Parker Pearson et al. 2005, fig. 3). The site has also produced important finds of clay moulds for Late Bronze Age bronze objects.

Further depositional activities marked the rebuilding of the houses, including the burials of two dogs and a newborn baby beneath the floors of the central and northern houses respectively.  The abandonment of the dwellings was also a significant event: for example, a bronze bracelet was placed on the floor of the northern house (in its north-eastern quadrant) as an offering at the end of one stage in the life of this building.

Belief systems and ritual practices were not only of relevance at important events such as the foundation or abandonment of a dwelling.  The organisation of space within the houses at Cladh Hallan suggests that daily activities were also informed by cosmological concerns.  These buildings, like others of the period, faced roughly east, towards the rising sun – an orientation that may have been considered auspicious.  Evidence for tasks that would have been carried out by day, such as cooking and craft activities, was largely found on the southern and eastern sides of the roundhouses, while sleeping appears to have taken place in the northern halves of these buildings.  The human and animal burials were also predominantly deposited on their northern sides, as were abandonment deposits.  As such, the ordering of domestic space is thought to reflect broader conceptual divisions between light and dark, day and night, life and death.  The circular architecture and the orientation of Bronze Age houses linked these ideas into beliefs regarding the cyclical regeneration of life that we have already seen expressed in monumental contexts.

Return to Section 5.4 Belief systems and ceremony in Bronze Age Scotland