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Ancient sites on the Isle of Man including Neolithic burials and stone circles, ancient artifacts, and a viking long ship burial
Today is the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year. Many of us will simply marvel at today’s 17 hours of daylight and leave it at that but this day was important to ancient Europeans. Though we can only speculate on what their beliefs were, many burial sites and stone circles have been found to align with the sun on the Summer Solstice – none are more famous than Stonehenge.
Modern-day Pagans and curious folk alike will have gathered this morning to watch the sunrise from this 5000-year-old stone circle. Incredibly, sites similar to it are peppered throughout the British Isles and even here on the Isle of Man.
Below is a list of places on the island that date from the Neolithic to the Viking age and include burial sites, stone carvings, artifacts, and curious stones. Find each of them at the orange markers on the google map below.
1. Cashtal yn Ard Ancient Tomb
Also called the ‘Castle of the Height’, this stone burial site was much larger when it was built in around 2000 BC. It is thought that this site was used as a communal burial place for chieftans and their families and is actually the largest Neolithic tomb of its type in the British Isles. Find it in Maughold on the road from Glen Mona to the community of Cornaa. Learn more.
2. Meayll Hill Stone Circle
Overlooking the seaside town of Port Erin is a stone circle made up of twelve individual stone graves. Could this have been a place to draw power from the ancestors?
Also called ‘Mull Hill’, this site is dated from the late Neolithic or early Bronze age and lies on the single lane road that connects Cregneash to Port Erin. It’s a short walk up a steep hill so make sure to wear appropriate foot-wear.
3. The Pagan Lady’s Necklace
Long before Pandora started selling collectible charms, our ancestors invented the idea of souvenir jewelry. This necklace, made of 73 beads from all around Britain and Europe, was found in the grave of a woman buried in 950AD. Some of them were already 300 years old when she was laid to rest and there is still speculation on whether the old woman was a shaman of some sorts or simply the beloved wife of a traveling husband. Imagine him bringing her back a bead from every journey he took.
4. The Maughold Monastery & Celtic Crosses
With stunning views across the sea and green fields, the churchyard at Maughold’s Church contains much more than the remains of loved ones. Scattered throughout are the foundation remains of a Christian monastery and (fully functional) well dated from 600AD. When chatting to a local who was visiting at the same time we were told that this monastery was where the villagers of Ramsey and the surrounding areas would take refuge when Vikings were raiding.
Just to the right as you enter the churchyard is an open shed with many original Celtic and Norse stone crosses. The number of them found there suggests that the church was probably the heart and soul of the pre-Norse community on the Isle of Man. Another landmark to visit in the churchyard is the Prussian Sailors’ Grave. Read about their tragic story here.
5. The Celtic Cross at St. Adamnan’s Church
Speaking of Celtic crosses, the slightly wonky example found in the churchyard of St.Adamnan’s Church is said to be one of the oldest on the island. Dating back to around 400AD, it’s decorated with knot-work and still stands in its original position. Nearly eight feet tall, the design for its head is a celtic-style wheel and it’s mounted at an interesting angle. Learn more.
St. Adamnan’s is also called Old Lonan Church, you can find it just off the Ballamenagh Road in Baldrine. There are a number of other crosses in a shelter and you can even visit the tiny chapel which was renovated in the 19th century. Just to the south of the church, you’ll also find St. Lonan’s holy well, called Chibbyr Onan in Manx.
6. The Cloven Stones
This site is bewildering to anyone who has the pleasure of walking past it on lower Packhorse Lane in Baldrine. In the front garden of a 1960s pebbledash bungalow is the remains of a neolithic site referred to as the Cloven Stones. Under protection from Manx National Heritage, this landmark may have been the site of an ancient grave:
Cumming says “In Douglas Road, about one mile from Laxey, there is on the southern side of a little ravine, a small circle of twelve stones, one of which, six feet high, is remarkable as being cloven from top to bottom. The tradition is, that a Welsh Prince was here slain in an invasion of the island, and that these stones mark the place of his interment.
Mr Feltham mentions the discovery in the centre of the circle, of a stone sepulchral chest or kistvaen, and in the view which he has given of it as existing at the time of his visit, there is a clear indication of a coved roof of stones, forming an arched vault in the centre of the mound.” – p350 in The Monument Known as “King Orry’s Grave”, Compared with Tumuli in Gloucestershire, A. W. Buckland . The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 18. (1889), pp. 346-353.
7. Cronk Karran
Near the ominous fissures that cut into the cliffs called the Chasms is a tiny stone circle set off on its own overlooking the sea. Clearly visible from the Raad ny Foillan footpath, it’s not known whether this circle marks a burial place or is simply a hut circle. Perhaps it’s something else entirely!
In the far south of the island, on a hill overlooking Gansey Bay is a cluster of burials and building remains all on the same site. Though you can see the remains of a Bronze age grave and the foundations of an early Christian chapel there, the site is best known for its Viking longship burial. Dated from between 850-950AD, the burial contained a Norse longship, a Viking male with his possessions, and a female who was possibly a sacrificed slave. An outline of stones marks where the burial was.
More interestingly is the fact that the longship was buried over earlier Christian Lintel graves. These graves contained several people but one woman whose remains were excavated and then sent for DNA analysis was found to be from north Africa, yet buried as Manx. Her story and how she got to the Isle of Man in the years before 850AD must be a fascinating one. (The evidence for the north African woman was recounted by Allison Fox, Curator of Archaeology for Manx National Heritage in her 2015 lecture on ‘Women of the Viking Age’.) More on Balladoole.
9. King Orrys Grave
Though King Orry was a real person, he is in no way connected to this impressive neolithic ‘Cairn’ grave in Laxey. Rather, he took control of the island in 1079, and afterward, several sites were named after him.
Set in two locations which are across the road from each other on Ballaragh road, this was a place where people from 4000 years ago would have laid their loved ones to rest. While there has been an excavation of the site, which sits hemmed in on all sides by modern homes, only the remains of one person and a bowl were found. Learn more.
10. The Triple Spiral Stone
Follow the Ballaragh road on from King Orry’s Grave towards Glen Mona and you’ll come across an ancient engraving in a stone on the roadside in the hamlet of Ballargh. Set across the street from a house, this spiral carving dates from possibly the late Neolithic or early Bronze age around 2000BC. A Manx National Heritage plaque is set above the stone, making it easier to spot. The actual spiral is easier to feel out with your fingers than to initially see.
The triple spiral is known as a Triskelion and was an ancient symbol found all across Europe in the neolithic. The modern design of the three legs of man, the symbol of the Isle of Man, could have descended from it. Learn more about the stone spiral.
11. Ballahara Stones
In the 1970s during works on the Ballahara Sandpit a multi-chambered tomb dating from 2300BC was uncovered. Sadly, the site was heavily damaged but it was excavated by local archaeologist, Sheila Cregreen who was able to provide more detail.
The tomb had six large stones set above ground level. Two of these stones had been crushed but the four remaining were donated by the owners of the Ballaharra Sandpit to German Parish Commissioners, who erected the stones in St. John’s near Tynwald Hill. – Isle of Man Guide
The stones are clearly visible from the Peel road across the street from the church of St. John the Baptist in St Johns.
12. The Whipping Stone
The wall that surrounds St. Peter’s Churchyard in Onchan was built to include a large wedge-shaped stone visible from the surrounding road. Local children were warned that it was a whipping post and that if they misbehaved that they’d be taken there for punishment. In reality, it is most likely all that remains of an ancient site:
Legend has it that this was a whipping post, but it is actually a prehistoric stone. It may have been part of a larger stone circle at one time, or even a monument to mark the burial place of a Chieftan – Onchan Blog.
For even MORE ideas check out these 15 Quirky & Unusual things to do on the Isle of Man, a Unique Weekend Itinerary: Isle of Man, and 13 Spooky places to visit on the Island