Last edited 26 Oct 2021

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10,000 years of settlement on the Isle of Man

The first inhabitants to leave their mark on the Isle of Man have been followed by – among others – early Christians, Celts, Vikings, tourists, interned Germans and motorcyclists.

Meayll Circle.png
Meayll Circle on the south of the Isle of Man provides evidence of occupation from neolithic to medieval times. Its Manx name, Rhullicky-lagg-shliggagh, means ‘the graveyard of the valley of broken slates’. There are 12 burial chambers in an 18-foot ring, with six entrance passages leading into each pair of chambers. (Photo: Flickr, from CC 2.0 Culture Vannin).

The rich archaeology of the Isle of Man forms an important part of its cultural heritage. Not surprisingly there are similarities to the material cultures of its neighbours around the Irish Sea. Indeed, the island is visible to them and the average 30-mile sea journey was well within the range of most sea-faring cultures over the last 10,000 years. But the fusion and interaction between these communities over time has given much Manx archaeology a unique twist.

In the same way, the processes of archaeological discovery are similar in that antiquarians and latterly commercial developers have been responsible for uncovering the past – but the absence of large-scale industrialisation and modern infrastructure means that much of it remains visible in the rural landscape. Indeed, much probably still remains to be discovered. The establishment of the Manx Museum and National Trust in the 1880s has meant that most of what has been discovered since then has been recorded and in many cases preserved, either in the museum or in the landscape, under a system of ‘guardianship’. All archaeological finds must be reported to the trust, which controls export licences and archaeological investigation.

There is no evidence of human habitation before the end of the last ice age around 11,500 years ago, when the island gradually became disconnected from southern Scotland and Cumbria. The first inhabitants were late mesolithic coastal dwellers living in houses, storing hazelnuts, eating fish, curing skins and using microlithic flints. Recent finds from excavations at Ronaldsway have been radio-carbon dated to almost exactly 10,000 years ago, making this one of the earliest settlements in the British Isles.

The transition to farming in the neolithic period took place on the island around 4,000 years BC and is clearly initially heavily influenced by other maritime people. Large-scale communal burial monuments on the island, such as the chambered tomb at Cashtal yn Ard, back onto the sea and are similar to those in Galloway, less than 20 miles across the sea. Excavations at Billown in the south of the island show that the island eventually developed an agriculturally-based society, heavily influencing the landscape with houses, tracks and field boundaries. Technological change leading to the use of metals was aided by the availability of raw materials such as copper and lead. There is only limited evidence for copper mining but finds of bronze tools are becoming more frequent. Again, the recent excavations at Ronaldsway revealed a cluster of domestic houses and associated structures which can best be described as a village.

A new project currently being carried out with Leicester and Newcastle Universities is re-evaluating the 200 or so known substantial ‘round mounds’ which cover the burials of this period. These new practices, emerging around 3600 BC, are influenced once again from elsewhere – probably by a movement of people from Ireland to the Scottish islands. In parallel with current fieldwork, re-examination of cremated bone from bronze-age sites excavated in the last century is telling us more about the population itself.

The period described as the iron age on the Isle of Man is difficult to characterise. It was largely domestic, with people living in farmsteads but at times wanting to defend themselves and if necessary moving to coastal locations, which could be fortified, or to inland hilltops. Houses were mainly timber, as were defences, with earthen ramparts and ditches providing protection. Metalworking took place locally but trade within the wider Irish Sea is identifiable, if not intensive. Most of the archaeological excavations of key sites took place in the mid-20th century but recent work by the Liverpool University Centre for Manx Studies has confirmed the overall picture of the period 500 BC onward.

One of the major unanswered questions is the relationship with the Roman Empire and the 400 years of the Roman Province of Britannia. The Roman navy and army were firmly in control of the Irish Sea, which became a highway between the breadbasket of Anglesey and the moving frontier zone between northern England and Scotland. The island was effectively surrounded on three sides by Romanised communities and an imperial infrastructure, but there is no archaeological trace of this here, apart from a few metal items which confirm occasional contact. At the very least we should probably be looking for lighthouses or signal towers at key navigation points, but it is hard not to draw the conclusion that the island was poor and harmless, and therefore a largely ignored backwater.

This lack of contact leaves the period between AD 50 and AD 500 very short of material which can be used to date settlement activity, so few excavated sites can be reliably assigned to the period. It is also difficult to see the transition in archaeological terms to a Celtic and Christian early medieval period, which happened sometime between AD 500 and AD 800. The evidence is in the landscape – we see the first written records on carved stones in Ogham and Latin, which confirm later references to the conversion of the island by followers of the Irish Saint Patrick.

The origins of later religious structures are in this early period but our knowledge of domestic settlement is flimsy, and made more complex by the reuse of earlier structures such as hill forts and promontory forts, which are themselves hard to date. One clearly Celtic Christian phenomenon may have its origin at this time – namely some 170 small chapels or keeills. These may be single-cell monasteries, mortuary chapels, chapels for holy wells and sacred sites, or the precursors of later religious houses. Like so many other monument classes, the lack of modern scientific excavation and analysis means that dating is unclear.

The Irish Celtic Christian and Gaelic tradition was sufficiently strong, however, to be distinguished from Viking trading and subsequent settlement, which took place from the end of the 9th century. Pagan burials with Scandinavian grave goods appeared – sometimes in Christian settings but including the ‘typical’ Viking ship burial. The settlers adopted Christianity but with a substantial legacy of Scandinavian belief and legend displayed on stone carvings across the island. This corpus of carvings, which includes funerary markers in the form of crosses and runic inscriptions, is one of the most significant outside Scandinavia, highlighting the wealth and strategic value of the island. The island is at the end of the Viking sea-road from Norway, but at the centre of military incursions and civilian settlement around the Irish Sea.

Manx history shows a substantial divergence from England in the period after the Norman conquest, and the archaeology continues to show Norse and Scandinavian influences overlaying the Celtic landscape and language under a new Norse dynasty which controlled not just Mann but the western Scottish isles, and whose trading interests are reflected in substantial evidence for economic activity, and the presence of coins and silver bullion. Several churches have their origins in this period, as do the castles at Peel and Rushen. Rushen Abbey was founded in 1134 – by a king who was technically a Norseman, but with allegiance split between Norway and England. Unfortunately, we have almost no evidence of domestic settlement such as the generic Viking longhouse – which are found in settlements of similar periods in Iceland. There are no towns like Yorvik. The uplands do have shielings, which are evidence for substantial animal husbandry in summer months, but dating is once again problematic.

The period from about 1300 to 1700 saw a largely rural and agricultural economy heavily influenced by England, with farmsteads and small villages being the norm. The striking difference was the significant strategic role of the island in English conflicts with Wales, Ireland and Scotland. Under the various English Lords of Man and at the behest of the English monarch, the island was fortified with the latest technology. Peel Castle expanded to fill the whole of St Patrick’s Isle and Castle Rushen was massively rebuilt after being taken by Robert the Bruce in 1313. A network of forts was established during the Tudor period and the island’s defences were renewed in preparation for the English civil war.

The driver for urbanisation (albeit on a limited scale) was the development of trade by Britain with the Caribbean in the 18th century. Douglas in particular grew rapidly alongside ports such as Whitehaven, Lancaster and later Liverpool. This new infrastructure of ports, harbours, bridges and roads was soon well placed to serve a series of mineral mining developments. There is no coal to be found here, but water power was fully exploited with the world’s largest surviving waterwheel being constructed in 1854 to pump out the lead and zinc mines at Laxey.

Tourism developed as a major part of the island’s economy from the middle of the 19th century and has left its mark. Not only does the townscape still include hotels, boarding houses, gardens and promenades, but large parts of the river valley system were extensively landscaped as walks and entertainment complexes. Other industrial technology was employed to move visitors around, with the electric tramway from Douglas to Ramsey and an electric tram to the top of Snaefell still surviving. The remains of other systems such as chairlifts and funicular railways can still be traced, and to the delight of modern visitors one steam railway line still operates.

In recent years the archaeology of recent conflict has achieved recognition. On the island this includes the remains of the first-world-war internment camp at Knockaloe, which housed 25,000 mainly German inmates. The seaside hotels and boarding houses in five coastal settlements were converted to internment camps in the second world war; there are also the remains of three second-world-war airfields, four second-world-war Chain Home Radar stations and various military training facilities.

Depending on your definition of archaeology, there is the world-famous TT course stretching for 37.75 miles around the centre of the island. At over 100 years old it is increasingly studied and acknowledged as a unique part of the island’s heritage.

This article originally appeared as ‘10,000 years of settlement’ in IHBC’s Context 153, published in March 2018. It was written by Edmund Southworth, director of Manx National Heritage, Eiraght Ashoonagh Vannin.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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