The Archaeology of Cave Hill

Cave Hill has been occupied since the last retreat of the glaciers, 9000 years ago

At first sight, it may be thought surprising that there is not more evidence of human occupation of Cave Hill, given that humans have lived in this area since shortly after the last retreat of the glaciers, 9000 years ago. However, most traces in this upland area have been covered over by the growth of peat and heather in the last 2000 years. To give one example, there exists on the summit of Cave Hill a large Neolithic stone cairn approximately 16m in diameter and 1.15m in height, which has been almost completely covered by peat. The path from McArt’s Fort to McLaughlin’s quarry runs right over this monument.

However, there are some notable remains on Cave Hill. Close to the entrance to the Cave Hill Country Park on the Hightown Road is a cashel. Technically, this is an enclosure surrounded by a dry stone wall. It is a large structure, consisting of a low ring about 40m in diameter with another rectangular structure about 9m by 12m straddling it, possibly a later addition. It is thought to be the remains of an eighth century fortified farmhouse.

In August 1993, a gold dress fastener was found by the side of a new gravelled path to the summit. The Ulster Museum followed this find with a three day excavation, and concluded that it belonged to the period between 1000 and 700BC. The dig also uncovered an early medieval fireplace about 30cm from the fastener. There have been separate finds of Neolithic artefacts and early medieval pottery.

McArt’s Fort
Little is known about McArt’s Fort. It is roughly circular, about 50m in diameter, and surrounded by an earth bank and ditch, now badly eroded through path construction and natural slippage. Despite its name, it may not have been defensive. It seems too small to have offered shelter from missiles launched from the other side of the ditch, and it has no water supply. Instead, it may have had a ritual purpose in Neolithic times.

There is some evidence to suggest that McArt’s Fort experienced some vandalism at the hands of amateur treasure seekers. George Benn notes:

‘Near the centre is a large hole of a dry gravelly soil called the Giant’s Punch Bowl, a very incongruous name. The punch bowl, however, has lately received a vast addition to its dimensions, owing to the havoc of a certain adventurer, assisted by a number of persons unknown, who heard, or dreamed, or fancied that they were to be the discoverers of hidden treasure. This was the greatest of several attempts that had been made in the same place, and for the same purpose. For one whole day spades, mattocks, and shovels were in requisition; the labour was vast; the hopes were great; now elevated; now depressed. It was the effort of a day, and nothing more; “gloomy and sad” returned the hero of the piece, and his coadjutors followed “humming surly songs”’.

This probably accounts for the large depression at the southwesterly edge of the fort.

The Caves
The five caves were first described in detail in the Ulster Journal of Archaeology in 1902. Little can be said about them except that they appear manmade, though nothing has been found within them to indicate permanent or semi-permanent residence. We may speculate that they were temporary refuges for the Neolithic inhabitants from the foreshore of Belfast Lough when sea-borne raiders threatened them.

The remains of a crannog are located within the grounds of Belfast Zoo. A crannog is an artificial island built in a lake. When the zoo grounds were landscaped, the lake, which had dried up, was restored. It was then decided to cover up the structure of the crannog with extra earth and so leave it undisturbed for the attention of future archaeologists. The crannog probably belongs to the late Bronze Age, between 1500 and 500BC.

Rath and Souterrain
In December 1947, workmen discovered a rath and souterrain in what is now Shaneen Park, off the Upper Cave Hill Road. E Estyn Evans, who carried out the original excavation, was of the opinion that it dated from about AD900. Subsequent excavation in 1958 revealed a second period of occupation around the twelfth or thirteenth centuries. The site is large, approximately 30m across, and in the grounds of a private dwelling not readily accessible to the general public.

© Cormac Hamill. Reproduced with kind permission of the Cave Hill Conservation Campaign 2004.