Archaeology in the hills

The Big Dig on Divis 

Hundreds of people including schools, community groups, families and clubs took part in the biggest community archaeology excavation ever seen in the Belfast Hills!


Cave Hill archaeology and the community 'Big Dig' at Ballyaghagan




Cave Hill contains a mysterious prehistoric site that was discovered only recently by archaeologists at a location never unearthed before.

The dramatic find was revealed after a community excavation involving more than 600 people including pupils from local schools at Ballyaghagan cashel on the Upper Hightown Road in Belfast.


L-R: A pre-Christian illustration of Ballyaghagan with houses inside the perimeter wall and a 17th century impression of the same spot this time with the house making the most of the spectacular views from the hill!


L-R: Schoolchildren taking part in the Belfast Hills community dig, a young archaeologist takes part in the excavation and a mysterious sandstone with etching that was found at Ballyaghagan

Amazing finds at Ballyaghagan!

See pictures of the Big Dig in action

Preparations for the community Big Dig


Belfast Newsletter

BBC News

QUB Reports and Archaeology Ireland's article on the Ballyaghagan community dig.

Cave Hill was initially named Ben Madigan after a local chieftain who died around 855 AD. Its highest point at McArt's Fort (J32507960) is considered to be an Iron Age stronghold dating back to the early centuries BC.  The fort is named after Art O'Neill, a 16th century chieftain who held the land around Cave Hill. There are five caves in the basalt (J32627990), the lowest of which is accessible from a worn path.  It is thought these caverns have been used as temporary refuges over the centuries.

The excavation in October 2011at nearby Ballyaghagan, gave local people the chance to take part in an archaeological dig. However the sheer numbers of those working at the site helped unearthed fascinating information about this monument that was previously unknown.

The project was spearheaded by the Belfast Hills Partnership and was one of a series of schemes earmarked for a £1.8m Heritage Lottery Fund landscape partnership scheme in the Belfast Hills. Belfast City Council which owns the land and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency also funded the project.

The 'Big Dig' was led by a team from Queen’s University’s centre for archaeological fieldwork. The initiative was aimed at helping people learn more about the rich history and antiquity of the Belfast Hills.

The experts soon realised the cashel didn't fit easily into the classification of this monument type. It left them curious as to why no early Christian artifacts - items expected at this type of site - were recovered during the excavation. Therefore there may be a prehistoric significance to the site still to be revealed!

The excavation of Ballyaghagan also revealed a 400-year-old farmstead - the remains of which were known before the community dig.

However the house now appears to be much earlier than previously thought and may even date to the immediate post-plantation period, which would be a very important discovery indeed.

As with almost all small-scale archaeological excavations, the site seems to pose more questions than answers, but the amount of information obtained and the clear enthusiasm of the participants has proved the project to an extremely positive experience. 

Divis and the Black Mountain

Near the summit of Divis one round cairn, possibly of Bronze Age date has been found along with several smaller cairns dotted around Black Mountain. Two stone enclosures have also been found. One of the enclosures appears to be a possible hybrid upland version of the Early Christian period earthen ringfort or rath and its stone companion the cashel. Within the circular enclosure, defined by low stone walling lies an apparent rectangular house, which helps to date this site to between 700-1100 AD.

The other enclosure is even more curious, defined by a circular stone wall with possible opposing entranceways and a series of three stone walled cells or rooms arranged around its interior on the west. The closest parallel for a site or monument of similar form are the cellular stone built buildings found in western Scotland, which date to the early Iron Age. At present the date and function of the Divis cellular structure is unclear, though a later Bronze Age or Early Iron Age date seem probably.


On the southern side of the site, towards the Stoneyford river is a mysterious earth ring.  It is enigmatic in origin, it could be an Iron Age ring enclosure housing a village or may simply be a 300yr old cattle enclosure, investigations are still underway so watch this space!

There is also a Bronze Age burial cairn on the eastern side of the site which is linked to other burial sites on Colin Mountain.

Colin Glen

Before this century the Colin Glen was a game reserve, used by the local landowners for sport, whilst they also managed the Colin River to produce power to run a linen mill. The First World War saw the removal of a lot of timber. The lower glen was almost clear felled in the Second World War as a shortage of imported hardwood timber led to the removal of the oak and other mature trees.

Between the wars, McGladdery's Brick Manufacturers scarred the Southwest banks of the River in the open cast quarrying of the local outcrop of red brick clay (Keuper Marl) and later were to set up a factory to produce bricks on site. The pits they were to create were later to be used as a landfill site. The Colin Glen Trust was set up in 1989 in order to manage the Forest Park and to reclaim it back to its former glory with the capping of the landfill site and the planting of thousands of native trees and shrubs.

As more of the Hills are opened up to the public and future surveys are carried out hopefully the Belfast Hills will finally reveal more of their hidden secrets.

Carnmoney Hill

Carnmoney takes its name from Cairn Monadh 'the cairn on theboggy mountain', a burial chamber that originally stood on the summit of Carnmoney Hill. In archaeological terms, the hill is important not just for the burial cairn on the summit, but also for the rath or hill fortcalled Dunanney. Signs of human habitation have been found there, dating back 1200 years.

Belfast Hills Historical Background

The Belfast Hills are a great example of how people who lived, farmed, hunted and died many centuries ago can leave their marks on the landscape.  The hills are dotted with clues of how we lived from thetimes when the site of present day Belfast was little more than marshand swamp.

Enjoy time travelling down through the centuries as you readabout the history of the Belfast Hills, looking firstly at the different periods of time, and then focusing in on some of the sites across the Belfast Hills.

* Please note that privately owned land should not be enteredwithout the landowners' permission.  No sites of archaeological interest should be disturbed.

The prehistoric period (7000 - 1000 BC)

The Early Mesolithic Period in Ireland is dated to 7000-6000BC, followed by the Late Mesolithic Period, which is dated to 6000-4000BC, distinguished by a variation in the flint tool assemblage andproduction techniques.  Mesolithic people were Stone Age hunters,fishers and gatherers, living on the coastline and along rivers, butwith no knowledge of farming.  They used flint and other stones tomanufacture sharp tools (Anderson 1991, 35-8); their settlements can now be identified by locating scatters of discarded stone tools, and thedebris from their manufacture, generally discovered when fields areploughed.
The earliest upstanding remains within the Belfast Hills datefrom the Neolithic period. The Neolithic (or New Stone Age) periodrepresents the arrival and establishment of agriculture as the principal form of economic subsistence.  Over successive generations, farmerseither moved slowly across Europe or had influenced localhunter-gathering populations to adopt the new economy (Mallory &McNeill 1991, 29).  During the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age (c.3500-c.1500 BC) a characteristic feature of farming communities in Ireland, andover much of Western Europe, was the practice of collective burial instone tombs, now known as 'megalithic tombs' (Twohig 1990).  In Ireland, four main types of megalithic tomb have been identified and termed ascourt tombs, portal tombs, passage tombs and wedge tombs. 
There are three examples oftombs in the Belfast Hills.  Firstly on the summit of Wolf Hill, closeto a disused quarry are megalithic remains named the "Giant's Grave"(there is no visible indication of the remains).  Secondly at Legoniel a tomb was described in PSAMNI (1940) as 2 well matched uprights 3ft high & 4'6" apart with another upright 7ft away and 2 displaced slabsnearby (the remains of this tomb are no longer visible). Lastly a tombat Ballyutoag was partly excavated in 1937 revealing some Neolithicpottery, a flint scraper and some Iron Age pottery. 
The early medieval period (AD 400 - 1169) 
The early medieval period was a time of profound internal social and economic change in Ireland.  Themedieval period attracted settlement on the lower reaches of the RiverLagan forming the original core of the City of Belfast.  Agriculturalpractices demanded clearance of forested slopes of the Belfast Hillsland to enable human sustainability.  The first farmers to developpermanent farmsteads utilised the presence of flint contained withinBelfast Hills.  Evidence of early quarry sites and settlement locationsare found in various forms on the hills.  The dominant site typesassociated with this period include ringforts, souterrains andenclosures.  There are numerous examples of early medieval monumentslocated within the Belfast Hills.  Many of these features date from theEarly Christian period (400-799AD). 
Ringforts are undoubtedlythe most widespread and characteristic archaeological field monument inthe Irish countryside.  They are usually known by the names rathor lios consist of a circular or roughly circular area enclosedby an earthen bank formed of material thrown up from a concentric fosse(or ditch) on its outside. Archaeological excavation has shown that themajority of ringforts were enclosed farmsteads, which acted as a defence against natural predators like wolves, as well as against the cattleraids. Souterrains (underground chambers) are often found in association with ringforts.
The introduction and establishment of Christianity during this period is attested to in the archaeological record by the presence ofchurch sites, associated places for Christian burial and holy wells.

The late medieval period (AD 1169 - 1600)

The arrival and conquest of large parts of Ireland by the Anglo-Normans in the late-twelfth/early thirteenth century marks a watershed in the political history of Ireland. The remains of castles built by the Anglo-Normans at this time survive in the form of mottes.

The feudalisation of Gaelic-Irish society c.1000AD, demarcated by the apparent abandonment of ringforts in the period around the turn of the millennium and the very low numbers of newly-built ringforts in the early centuries of the second millennium AD, involved the new divisions of land of which the modern townland is the descendant. 

Medieval Ireland was a heavily encastellated land. Leask (1951) estimated that 3,000 castles (including earth-and-timber castles and late semi-fortified houses) were built in Ireland between the late 1100s and the 1600s.  Almost all the extant Anglo-Norman stone buildings of anon-ecclesiastical nature in Ireland appear to have been equipped for defending or were parts of larger complexes, which were so equipped (O'Keeffe 2000). 

There is one example of a 17thcentury castle within the Belfast Hills.  The rectangular hall or hall-house was the preferred form of castle residence in the later thirteenth century Ireland, and it may have been an influential form in the evolution of tower-houses, despite its comparatively low height. Tower houses were built in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as lordly residences by both Gaelic and Old English (Norman) families. 

The post-medieval period (AD 1600 - Present)

The sixteenth century was a turbulent time in Irish political matters.  A new order of Irish lordships emerged as previous English settlements were almost eliminated.  During the later sixteenth century the Irish lords came into bitter conflict with England when the Tudor kings and queens, particularly Elizabeth I, were determined to assert English control tightly over Ireland.  The resulting wars dating from the 1560s to 1603 bring this unsettled period to an end.

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were also a time for an upturn in industrial growth in Ireland and this is demonstrated by the industrial archaeological sites located within the study area.  One of the most distinctive traits of Ulster is the range and variety of industrial activities that developed in the post-medieval period.  Flax milling was the dominant industry within the Belfast Hills. 

During the eighteenth century linen manufacture in Ireland was a home-based industry, with women spinning yarn on spinning wheels while the weaving was undertaken by men.  By the end of the eighteenth century, linen accounted for about half of Ireland's total exports.

During the nineteenth century watermills and wet-spinning were introduced resulting in mass production of linen.  As a consequence the domestic industry declined.  Beetling was the final stage in the manufacture of linen. The process involved relentlessly pounding the material with heavy wooden hammers for up to ten hours.  This gave the damask cloth its characteristic smoothness and sheen.

Between the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries traditional water-powered mills for processing corn were replaced by steam-powered machines, thus increasing production.  Owing to the damp Irish climate corn, as well as other grains, had to be dried in a kiln in order to reduce the moisture content and subsequently facilitate the milling process.