Wednesday, February 11, 2009
This is one of the classic examples of a dual-court tomb. It is situated in a slight hollow one field in from the tidal mudflats around Jackdaw Island on the southern shore of Strangford Lough. The cairn is trapezoidal in plan and is orientated north-east/south-west, with the wider end facing south-west. It is revetted with a drystone wall of shale slabs and outside this again is a unique ‘buttress’ of shale and red soil. The ‘court’ façade at the south-west end is comparatively shallow, or flat, and only a selection of the façade stones survives, including just one jambstone. Behind this is a four-chambered gallery. The north-eastern ‘court area’ is rather more concave and it too gives onto a 10-m long gallery of four regularly sized, roughly paved chambers. In this case the end chamber has an in situ corbel stone revealing something about the original method of roofing. The site was excavated by Pat Collins in 1952, six years after its discovery.
The burial assemblage was really quite remarkable. Only the inner two chambers of the north-eastern gallery were empty; instead of burials there was a fire pit and evidence of intense burning. The remains of about 34 people were found in the remaining chambers, comprising men, women, and children. They were either inhumed, partially burnt, or fully cremated. The majority of inhumations were of women and children and these burials were disarticulated and occasionally collected into groups, such as the selection of small long bones, a jaw fragment, and a pig’s jaw arranged in the second chamber of the south-western gallery. This is clear indication of exhumation or excarnation. There were also animal bones, including the earliest evidence of horse. Throughout these deposits were sherds of pottery and lithics. The pottery assemblage included round-bottomed, plain and carinated bowls, decorated Goodlands-style sherds, and some Carrowkeel ware. The burial deposits were sealed beneath a packing of soil and stones and it has been suggested that the remains represent one episode of collective burial. A Bowl Tradition pot was also found and represents secondary funerary activity.
There is an interesting collection of field monuments, of all periods, in the immediate vicinity, including two round cairns to the east and a standing stone near Castleward to the south-east (all privately owned). There is another concentration of prehistoric monuments around Lough Money, about 5 km to the south-west, including, to the south of the Lough, Ballyalton Court tomb itself.