Bronze Age Burial near the ancient road

Bronze Age Burial at Bunnamayne, County Donegal
Author(s): J. C. T. MacDonagh and P. J. Hartnett
Source: The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Vol. 81, No. 1 (1951), pp.48-5

While tractor ploughing (Feb. 1950) for his uncle in a field on the crest of Bunnamayne hill, County Donegal, one of Mr. Samuel Walsh’s shears stuck fast in what he thought was a solitary horizontal flagstone. He removed the top soil from around the stone and with the aid of a crowbar levered the obstruction to the surface, preparatory to hauling it from the field, and, in doing so, noticed the chamber of which it formed the capstone. During these operations a considerable amount of clay slipped into the chamber and the lever, itself, narrowly missed destroying two food-vessels standing, side by side, at the eastern end of the chamber. Mr. Walsh took the vessels to his home and he deserves our praise for the careful manner in which he removed the fallen clay from them and the delicacy with which he treated them. Some weeks later Mr. Lowry (1) and myself, on hearing of the discovery, visited Bunnamayne. This time lapse was unfortunate as heavy rains and local sightseers had churned the clay (which had fallen with the crowbar into the chamber) and the bones (which lay in the western end of the chamber) into a muddy mixture. The chamber, however, was untouched and we were able to take measurements of the carefully selected slabs of schist which formed the chamber (page 49). Each was 10 to 12 cm in thickness and had, at least, one regular side which was set so as to form the inner wall of the chamber, thus making it a perfect rectangular box, 56 cm long, 33 cm wide and 30 cm high. The capstone (2) was dome-shaped and almost circular (diameters varying from 90 to 100 cm; and thickness from 15 cm around the edges to 24 cm in the centre) while its undersurface was perfectly flat like the rest of the slabs. We did not take any measurements of the slab which formed the bottom of the chamber as this would have entailed the dismantling of the structure; but we were satisfied that it was also chosen for its regular face. Every effort was made by the builder to seal the chamber, for very small slate-like stones were placed so as to form joints between the slabs wherever the slightest irregular edge showed itself. Bunnamayne is in the parish of Burt, barony of Innishowen West and the exact position of the burial on the 6 inch map (Donegal 47) is 20.9 cm and 23.6 cm from the north and east margins respectively. The grave was set on the top of one of the smaller foothills (300 feet above present sea level) two miles NNE. of the hill surmounted by the Grianan of Aileach. (3)

(1) Mr. Andrew Lowry of Argry, Ballindrait, Lifford. See Journal of Donegal Historical Society, 1947, 1948.
(2) Very much marked by previous ploughings.
(3) See “Bibliography of County Donegal.” (Mac Donagh and Mac Intyre). Journal Donegal Historical Society.

The Bunnamayne hill at one time formed the southern shore of one of the several sea-arms which split up Innishowen into a series of islands.(4) The sea-arm which bordered on Bunnamayne linked Loch Swilly at Burntfoot with Loch Foyle, just north of Derry city at Penny burn. Traditions in the locality mention that similar coves (sic) were found, years ago, lower down the hillside facing the Burntfoot – Pennyburn valley. The district is very rich in archaeological remains (5) and many of them are not recorded as, for instance, the Dalian which is now used as a post for the gate leading from Mr. Walsh’s farmyard to the field in which the grave was discovered. In addition to those mentioned I should like to thank Sergeant O’Sullivan, Garda Siochana, Burntfoot, for the prompt and tactful manner in which he carried out his duties when this discovery was brought to his notice. The food-vessels were taken to the National Museum by Mr. P. J. Hartnett of the Irish Antiquities Division who prepared the following notes on them.

J. C. T. MacDonagh, Hon. Editor,
(Co. Donegal Historical Society).

(4) See Romantic Innishowen. Swan. (1947).
(5) See Twixt Foyle and Swilly. Swan. (1949).



The larger of the two food-vessels (PI. V., 2) has a sharp shoulder and constricted neck. It is slightly asymmetrical. The rim bevels inwards at an angle of 45°; on the outside it has a heavy, pressed-out moulding. At about 1 cm from the base the slope of the wail alters, becoming almost vertical and forming a shallow foot. The base is rough and somewhat concave. Except for recent scaling on the outside of the rim at one point, and a vertical crack on the neck, the vessel is in an excellent state of preservation. The firing is good, the paste showing a hard black core with smallish grits. The outer surface is reddish brown, almost burnished; the inside is lighter in colour and has a rough finish. Along the inner course of the shoulder angle the imprints of the potter’s fingers can be seen and felt.

The decoration consists of incised and punctured straight lines and impressed: triangles. On the body shallow incised lines run vertically from the shoulder to within 1cm of the base. These are spaced at intervals of about 1 cm and are crossed at an angle of 60° by lines running downwards from right to left. The slope of these oblique lines is not consistent, nor are the lines themselves always straight and continuous – sometimes they are crude scratches.

Immediately above the shoulder is a frieze of triangles, their bases resting on -the shoulder line, their apices deeply impressed by a square-ended piece of wood, the grain of which has left a delicate hatched pattern in each triangle (PL V., 1). Below the shoulder there is a closely spaced band of incised chevron or herringbone ornament. The decorative motif on the neck of the vessel is similar to that on the body, except that here the oblique lines run from left to right, the angle is more variable, and the lines more discontinuous.

Along the outside of the lip moulding there is a running zig-zag, the lines of which are made by a toothed or serrated implement. In the bevel of the rim a broken faint line shows, concentric with the lip and about 5 mm inside it. This line may be fortuitous.

The smaller pot (PL V., 3) has a rounded shoulder, concave neck and everted lip with inward bevel. The marks of the potter’s fingers occur all over the vessel, but are especially noticeable along the shoulder and lip. The base is markedly concave. The pottery is coarse and gritty, the firing bad; the colour, a light buff, shows no appreciable change right through the body of the paste. One side is badly scaled and there is a piece missing (apparently not a recent break) at the lip at this point. On the inside surface the method of construction by way of horizontal layers or ” rings ” can be observed.

Compared with its companion vessel the form is very crude, and quite unlike that of the normal food-vessel. The “decoration” is haphazard and meaningless. On the body there are vague scratchings, sometimes vertical, sometimes oblique, and in a few instances curved. Immediately below the lip there is a wavy dotted line, in places obliterated by subsequent scorings and pinchings at the rim. From here to the shoulder runs a series of oblique lines. There are some random scores on the rim bevel.

The profiles of the Bunnamayne pots and the ornamental motifs employed make them unusual among vessels of this class in Ireland. Both belong to Abercromby’s Class E. The sharp shoulder, concave neck; heavy lip-moulding and scratched decoration of No. 1 find their closest parallels, not among the food-vessels (though certain of these elements do occur on food-vessels here and in Britain (6) but in the later cinerary urns. A cinerary urn from Co. Down in the National Museum (Abercromby LXXIX: 207) is, except for its flat rim, almost an enlarged copy of our Bunnamayne pot. Three cinerary urns from Wiltshire (Abercromby LXII: 6, 7 & 7a) may also be cited as well as one from Yorkshire E.R. (Abercromby LXXI: 108) and another from Somerset (Abercromby LXIII: 15) which has a punctured running zig-zag in its concave neck.

The impressed triangles on the shoulder of the Bunnamayne pot occur in a similar position on at least three food-vessels in the National Museum  – Ballon Hill, Co. Carlow, Greenhills, Co. Dublin, and on another (unlocalised) – in each case on vessels which one would place late in the series. On some food-vessel sherds from Dillonsdown, Co. Wicklow, punctured lines in the form of horizontal, running zig-zags occur as on the larger vessel from Bunnamayne. On the other hand, incised or scratched lines forming trellis patterns are found more often as a decorative motif on the cinerary urns.

The second vessel from Bunnamayne is a crude copy of the first and finds its nearest parallel in a domestic pot found in a broch at Midhowe, Orkney. (7) Abercromby figures a food-vessel of somewhat similar form from Dorset (XXIX: 8) and two from Yorkshire E.R. (XXXIV: 106 & 108), these latter associated with two others which recall the profile of Bunnamayne 1.

To summarise : the Bunnamayne pots find their closest parallels among vessels of the cinerary urn group; and where certain elements of form and decoration from Bunnamayne do occur on food-vessels, these latter are known to be typologically late in the series or are associated with cinerary urns, as at Tyringham and Burgage More. Furthermore, the fact that the Donegal burial was a cremation is in favour of a late dating. All things considered, a date in the Middle/Late Bronze Age transition period, or say about 900 B.C., cannot be too far wrong. Double interments, sometimes accompanied by one vessel, sometimes by two, are not uncommon, but from the meagre amount of bone recovered in this instance, it would be unprofit able to draw any general conclusions as to age, sex or number of persons involved.

(6) Cf. Abercromby XLV : 265 (Kingsbarns Law, Fifeshire); XXXVI : 137 & XLII : 213 (Yorks E.R.); XLVIII : 313a (Dunamaise, Co. Laois). A food-vessel of identical form was found with an O.H.R. urn and a cremation at Tyringham, Bucks {Antiq. Jour., viii (1928), p. 354. To these may be added a food-vessel in the National Museum from Ballyare, Co. Donegal (Abercromby LIV : 395) found in a cist with another, ac companying a cremation, and the food-vessel and encrusted urn from the cist at Burgage More, Co. Wicklow, also with a cremation.
(7) P.S.A.S., lxviii (1933-34), p. 504 & Fig. 49.

See also: Description of “cave” at Greenan Hill from 1838

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