Burnt Mounds - What is a burnt mound?

Burnt mounds are a remarkable feature at the Bradford Kaims. But what exactly is a burnt mound?

A burnt mound is a mound of burnt material. Thankfully there is more to it than that! The mound of burnt material usually consists of charcoal and shattered stones and examples have been found throughout the UK and Ireland. Often there is a trough and hearth associated with the mound. The trough could be rock-cut, wood-lined or clay-lined to ensure it was watertight. Dating varies quite widely, the earliest being Neolithic with some examples in the Iron Age.

It is thought that the mounds are the spoil heaps generated by the process of heating water. Before the arrival of pottery vessels, in which water could be heated directly, stones could be heated to a high temperature in a fire then dropped into troughs of water. This would heat the water very effectivley. The shattered rock found in burnt mounds is most probably the remains of rocks, used for heating the water, which broke up under the thermal stress of being dumped into the water and have been discarded. Even after the arrival of pottery vessels this method was still a more efficient way to heat water (or other liquids) on a large scale.

What is the water being heated for?

An obvious use for hot water is for cooking. Experimental archaeology carried out in Ireland in the 1950s show that a joint of meat could be cooked in about three to four hours through this method. However few burnt mounds, including those at the Kaims, contain the animal bones we would normally associate with cooking. Perhaps the hot water was being used for other purposes. For a sweat lodge perhaps, or for fulling (the cleansing of wool to eliminate oils). It is even possible that brewing was taking place as there is some evidence from Irish burnt mounds (called fulacht fiadh) of grain being found inside the trough. It is even possible that the water was simply used for bathing.

In all probability a facility for creating hot water would have done just that, and a variety of the potential uses for that hot water could have been associated with the facility at different times.

Burnt mounds at the Kaims

Initial test pitting at the Kaims was cause for excitment with the early discovery of burnt mound material and the associated early Neolithic hearth. Excavation has so far revealed 12 burnt mounds on the site and, during the 2013 excavation season, it seems there is potential for up to 22 burnt mounds in the investigation area, identified by a device nicknamed the ‘Penetrometer‘ (a handled spike pushed into the soft ground to ‘feel’ the stones of a burnt mound) supported by further test pitting. This investigation has more than doubled the number discovered in Northumberland to date, and represents one of the largest concentrations of burnt mound activity in the UK.

As the excavation of burnt mound No.1 progressed it became clear that this impressive feature was actually made up if a number of smaller (though some still as much as 5m across) burnt mounds which had accumulated over time.

Another striking feature of the burnt mounds at the Kaims are the dates. The first mound identified at the Kaims (shown in the picture on this page) was dated as being ealy neolithic. Another mound on site has been dated from finds evidence as being Bronze Age. This seperates the two by around 2,000 years! This wetland landscape, potentially a factory floor, has been, it seems, in use for a very long time and must have been an area of importance and focus in the area.