'A Most Curious Class of Small Cairn.' Reinterpreting the Burnt Mounds of Shetland

  • Lauren Doughton

Student thesis: Phd


This research is concerned with the critical reinterpretation of the burnt mounds of Shetland. Burnt mounds have been described as 'among the most boring sites with which a field archaeologist must deal' (Barber & Russel-White 1990:59). Traditionally burnt mound studies have been dominated by concerns relating to technology, form and function. This approach is understood to be a product of modernist understanding of the world which views technologies as primarily adaptive. As such, it is argued that a critical reappraisal of the frameworks through which burnt mounds are interpreted is required in order to develop an account of their construction and use which situates them within wider disciplinary discourses concerning the Bronze Age. In order to do so this thesis evaluates a range of theoretical frameworks which have explored the emergent and situated nature of encounters between people, places and things. Drawing upon this, a new approach is advocated that examines the relationship between burnt mounds and their wider landscape, and explores the material and social engagements which their construction and use affords.In order to offer a more holistic approach in keeping with current archaeological discourses, this study reconceptualises the burnt mound as an active site within Bronze Age society, a place where meanings were negotiated and materials transformed. This thesis utilises GIS analysis and in-situ observation to explore the landcape setting of the burnt mounds of Shetland and combines this with an exploration of the material engagements involved in the construction and use of burnt mounds through a series of experimental firings at a replica site. Through this burnt mounds are identified as powerfully symbolic locations involving the interplay of elemental substances which combine to transform people, places and things. This thesis further challenges the conception that burnt mounds are unable to offer any insight into life in the Bronze Age, by analysing the impact which this reinterpretation has on our understanding of Bronze Age Shetland. In particular, it is argued that in their concern with processes of fragmentation, regeneration and transformation Burnt Mounds reflect the cosmological concerns of wider Bronze Age society. The Bronze Age in Shetland has been identified as a period of apparent isolation and stagnation within the islands. By re-evaluating burnt mounds and situating them within a framework of wider Bronze Age practise this conception is challenged, and the Bronze Age of Shetland is presented as a dynamic period in which burnt mounds played a key role in the understanding of networks of persons, places and substances
Date of Award31 Dec 2014
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorColin Richards (Supervisor) & Sian Jones (Supervisor)


  • Archaeology
  • Elements
  • Transformation
  • Shetland
  • Bronze Age
  • Burnt Mound

Cite this