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A burnt mound in use.

Blood, Meat, and Beer? The Feasts that May Have Been Created in a Fulacht Fiadh Burnt Mound

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Dotting the landscapes of Ireland, England, Scotland, and Wales, fulachtaí fia remain a mystery from millennia gone by. The most common type of prehistoric archaeological site in Ireland, fulachtaí fia are more commonly known as burnt mounds in England, Scotland, Wales, and the Isle of Man. Despite their prevalence, archaeologists still debate the purpose of these enigmatic sites combining hearths, stones, and troughs. 

Fulacht Fiadh or Burnt Mound?

Thousands of these strange sites can be found across these countries - with 6,000 recorded in Ireland alone. Radiocarbon dating suggests that most of the sites were constructed during the mid to late Bronze Age (ca. 1500 – 500 BC). Some Neolithic and medieval examples are also known, though they are much less common. However, the wide date range means that this type of site was in use for approximately 5,000 years.

A reconstructed Fulacht Fiadh, Irish National Heritage Park.

A reconstructed Fulacht Fiadh, Irish National Heritage Park. (David Hawgood/ CC BY SA 2.0 )

Scholars have posited that the Irish word “fulacht” denotes a cooking pit or cavity. However, in Old Irish “fiadh” means something along the lines of “wild,” which some people have agreed means “wild deer” -adding to the idea that burnt mounds were places for food preparation. Some historical documents reference the term “fulacht” directly as a type of cooking spit. This term may come from the ancient Irish words for blood and meat.  This ongoing debate has led most scholars to agree to use the term “burnt mound” in reference to these sites instead of the Irish words.

Creating a Burnt Mound

Burnt mounds typically consist of 3 main elements: a mound of stones, a hearth used to heat the stones, and a trough lined with wood or stone filled with water - into which the heated stones were placed.

Labelled elements in a burnt mound.

Labelled elements in a burnt mound. ( Old European Culture )

On average, burnt mounds are approximately 2 meters (6.5 ft.) long and half a meter (1.6 ft.) in depth, although they vary. The excavated troughs are generally found to be rectangular or sub-rectangular in shape. A fire site, as well as a hunting site can be found within close proximity to the burnt mounds.

Once the rocks had served their purpose by heating the water, they were discarded in a heap - giving the sites their characteristic mound appearance (from which the name derives.) The mounds usually have a U-shape and could reach a height of more than 2 meters (6.5 ft.) tall, but they tend to be about 1 meter (3 ft.) high.

Burnt mound sites are typically found close to water sources, or at least waterlogged earth. They had to be situated close to a suitable source of surface stones. In addition, they needed a renewable source of fuel, so they are often situated near wooded areas.

In ideal conditions, the burnt mound is isolated. However, they have also been found built in a type of complex with up to 16 neighboring burnt mounds. Permanent structures are uncommon around the burnt mounts, however small huts or their remnants have been found near some sites. It is unclear if these were built by permanent settlers or nomadic hunters. The structures may have been used as seasonal hunting camps, as the swampy conditions needed for the site would have made for a miserable habitation.

Aerial image of a Neolithic burnt mound.

Aerial image of a Neolithic burnt mound. ( Tom Gardner /Bamburgh Research Project)

Possible Uses

While burnt mounds are the most common type of archaeological site across Ireland and the United Kingdom, the function of these sites is still in question. Many scholars agree that they were made for food preparation and cooking. Reconstructions of burnt mounds show that water can be successfully boiled in the troughs with heated stones. Meat could then be added to the boiling water to cook it.

When dry, the pits could have also been used as a place to roast meat on a spit. However, there is a lack of evidence to support this theory given that there have been no animal bones found in association with these sites so far. Some have explained this by suggesting the bones would have decayed over the centuries given the damp and swampy conditions around the site.

Other possible functions for the burnt mounds include: bathing, washing and dyeing cloth, and leather working. Mostly the lack of animal bones at the site have led researchers to suggest these other usages. However, it also makes sense to think that burnt mounds could have had various functions - in which all the alternatives could be correct. Another interesting suggestion has been proposed for the site being used as a sort of ancient sauna or sweat-house. This is supported by the rare evidence of a structure being built over the trough to catch the escaping steam.

Two alternative uses for a burnt mound: washing and prepping fleece (top) (Merryn Dineley/ ancient malt and ale ) and as a sweat-house (bottom) ( Eogan & Shee Twohig, p. 184 )

The final, and most recent, suggestion for the function of burnt mounds is brewing. In 2007, two archaeologists suggested that the sites were primarily used for the brewing of ancient beer. The went on to experiment with the idea by recreating their own burnt mound, in which they successfully brewed a batch of (apparently tasty) beer.

Bressay Heritage Centre, Shetland. Reconstructed burnt mound trough used as a mash tun to make a brew.

Bressay Heritage Centre, Shetland. Reconstructed burnt mound trough used as a mash tun to make a brew. ( ancient malt and ale )

The “hot-rock brewing” method has been used in more modern times to brew beer, so it is not out of the question that these sites could have been used for such a purpose. The scholars who support this theory say that this traditional way of brewing beer dates as far back as 2500 BC in Ireland, and these sites (if this theory is correct) would prove this date as true. However, this theory also works into the multi-purpose theory, while the brewing process could have been the primary use, it is probable that the sites were used for various other tasks as well.

An artist’s sketch of a burnt mound in use.

An artist’s sketch of a burnt mound in use. ( trekin’ time )

Top Image: A burnt mound in use. Source: Northern Ireland Environment Agency

Resources:

Colm. (2012) The enigmatic fulacht fiadh or burnt mound. Irish Archaeology . Available at: http://irisharchaeology.ie/2012/07/the-enigmatic-fulacht-fiadhburnt-mound/

Mullally, E. (2012) Letter from Ireland: Mystery of the Fulacht Fiadh. Archaeology. Available at: http://archive.archaeology.org/1201/letter/fulacht_fiadh_ale_bronze_age_ireland.html

Breaking News.ie (2007) Ancient monument may have been Bronze Age brewery . Available at:  http://www.breakingnews.ie/ireland/ancient-monument-may-have-been-bronze-age-brewery-322992.html

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