The Balfarg/Balbirnie complex

The Balfarg/Balbirnie complex is located in Fife, to the north of Glenrothes and the River Leven. It is made up of three main sites, the Balbirnie stone circle and cairn, the Balfarg Henge, and the Balfarg Riding School enclosure and associated features, which were excavated in detail during the 1970’s and 1980’s. Each site is described below, however, this project will focus on Balfarg Riding school, as the Balfarg Henge has no suitable samples for further radiocarbon measurements, and Alex Gibson has recently presented new radiocarbon measurements, and a revised chronology, for Balbirnie Stone Circle (see further reading).

Balbirnie Stone Circle

Balbirnie stone circle was excavated by Graham Ritchie between 1970 and 1971, ahead of a road widening scheme, after which the stones were re-erected some 125m away from the original site. The stone circle was made up of ten standing stones, five of which were still standing at the time of excavation; these five, combined with the stone holes and stumps of stones identified through excavation revealed a slightly elliptical stone circle, 14m x 15m. The packing material within the stone holes contained occasional fragments of cremated human bone, and one stone hole contained two fragments of Grooved Ware pottery.  This stone circle then became the site for a cremation cemetery, with the insertion of four rectangular stone cists made up of slabs set into pits dug within the internal space of the stone circle. Each cist contained deposits of cremated human bone and a range of material culture, including beads and a complete Food Vessel, and a number of the stone cist slabs were decorated with cup-and-ring marks.  Following the cremation cemetery, the entire area within the stone circle was covered with a cairn of stones with a kerb of rounded boulders.

Balbirnie stone circle, after excavation and relocation (photo by Jim Bain / Balbirnie stone circle / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Dating Balbirnie

An extensive dating program has been undertaken by Alex Gibson to date the Balbirnie sequence, which demonstrated that activity at the monument spanned a one and a half thousand years, from the start of the third millennia BC. As a result, Project Time will not be producing any further measurements on this material, and will instead be using this detailed assemblage of measurements in our modelling of the wider Balfarg/Balbirne landscape.    

Balfarg Henge

Balfarg henge was excavated by Roger Mercer in 1977-8; prior to that the site had been known due to the presence of two large standing stones (which the excavation revealed were the remnants of a stone circle within the henge enclosure). The henge comprised an enclosure ditch, c.65m in diameter, 8m wide and 2.5m deep, with the remnants of a bank outside this ditch.  The ditch had two entrances, but unusually in comparison to other henges with two opposed entrances (e.g. North Mains, Arbour Low, Thornborough), the Balfarg Henge entrances were located on the southern and eastern sides, with the short stretch of ditch between the two sitting within a natural gully. The monument was badly damaged by erosion and modern cultivation, however, a number of features inside the enclosure indicated the presence of timber and stone circles. Along the eastern edge of the ditch, six stone holes suggested an outer circle of stones running along the inner rim of the ditch, whilst a number of postholes, and one of the still standing monoliths, suggest a second inner stone circle may also have been present. However, in both cases, full circuits were not present, likely the result of disturbances to the site. Sitting within the possible stone circles was a timber circle, c 25m in diameter, made up of 15 posts, with an ‘entrance’ made up of two pairs of posts on the western side of the timber circle.  To the north-west of the timber circle, a spread of material, including dense concentrations of lithics and prehistoric ceramics, including Grooved Ware, was identified, and interpreted as the remains of an in-situ deposit (possibly a midden). Furthermore, sherds of the same vessels were recovered from this spread and the postholes, indicating this material was contemporary with the construction of the timber circle. Finally, within the timber circle, an oval pit sealed by a large flat stone slab contained the very fragmentary remains of a crouched burial, which was accompanied by a handled beaker.  After excavation, Balfarg henge was partly reconstructed, forming a focal point for the modern housing area that was built around it.

Dating Balfarg Henge

The sequence of construction for Balfarg henge is unclear; as with other henge enclosures, it is thought that the bank and ditch was constructed around the earlier stone and timber circles, and that the timber circle may pre-date the stone circles. Four measurements from charcoal provide dates for the timber circle, and a fifth measurement on the burial with the beaker demonstrates it is later than the timber circle. However, no further material is available from Balfarg for radiocarbon dating.

Balfarg Riding School 

Balfarg Riding School was excavated between 1983 and 1985, led by Gordon Barclay. These excavations revealed a multi-phase monumental complex, the majority of the archaeology located in two open area trenches, Area A and Area C (see plan above). The earliest phase of activity were a number of pits containing typologically ‘early neolithic’ pottery styles, including Carinated bowls, plus charcoal rich deposits and heavily packed stone deposits in upper layers, which were interpreted as the result of complex activities involving the digging and careful refilling of pits.

The next phase consists of two rectilinear timber structures (structure 1 and 2 on the plan above), defined by an outer edge of timber posts forming two straight edges and two rounded ends, with a series of postholes and pits within the interior. However, these were interpreted by the excavators as open, as opposed to roofed, structures. Both structure 1 and 2 were associated with Grooved Ware ceramics, however, especially in structure 2, the presence of Grooved Ware in postholes cut to replace earlier postholes, and in a spread of material sealing the structure, suggested that Grooved Ware was only associated with the later use of these structures.  A number of other pits at the site also contained Grooved Ware, and are thought to be contemporary with the final use of timber structures 1 and 2.

Between structures 1 and 2 ran the Balfarg Riding School enclosure (BRS enclosure), a curving ditch, between 0.5 and 1.1m deep and 2.4m and 4.5m wide. The full extant was not exposed within the excavation area, however, had it formed a full circuit, it would have been an enclosure 38-43m in diameter with structure 2 at the centre.  Grooved Ware was recovered from the middle fills of the ditch, whilst Beaker ceramics were recovered from the upper fills, suggesting at least some of the activity related to the ditch may have been contemporary with the later use of structures 1 and 2.

The next phase of activity is comprised of two complex multi-phase ring ditch/cairn monuments. Ring ditch A, 14 m in diameter, was cut through structure 1, and appears to have been left to silt naturally after it was initially dug, before later being backfilled first with a layer of quartz cobbles, then a thicker layer of mixed stone. Following this, a ring cairn (cairn A) was constructed over the top of this ring ditch, consisting of a band of rounded stones up to 2m wide, sealing the ring ditch, and defined by a kerb of slabs on the inner edge. Within this ring cairn, a second, smaller ring cairn was built, made up of a ring of stony material, defined by a kerb of slabs on the inner and outer edges. To the north of cairn A, a second partial cairn (cairn B) was identified; this was formed of a single kerb c. 0.7m wide with both internal and external faces, with stony spread internally and externally, and contained a number of inhumations and cremation burials.  The survival of the ring cairns suggests that they were sealed beneath mounds towards the end of their life.

Potentially one of the latest phases of activity at the site were a group of cremation burials to the west of Balfarg Henge (in area A), including a few that included cremated remains within ceramic vessels; these Bucket Urns may indicate an early-middle bronze age date.

Dating Balfarg Riding School

There are a number of existing radiocarbon measurements for the Balfarg Riding School complex, from the pits containing Carinated bowl, structures 1 and 2, Grovedware pits and the BRS enclosure. However, when the site was excavated, it was not possible to use cremated bone for radiocarbon measurements; as a result, all the current measurements are on charcoal.  Project Time is aiming to obtain further measurements from cremated remains, including burials from Structure 1, the BRS enclosure and the ring cairn B, to produce a more detailed chronology of activity and life at this complex.

Further reading

Barclay, G., Russell, C.J., Barclay, G.J., Barnetson, L., Birnie, J., Cook, G., Cowie, T., Dalland, M., Downes, J., Fairweather, A. and Henshall, A., 1994, November. Excavations in the ceremonial complex of the fourth to second millennium BC at Balfarg/Balbirnie, Glenrothes, Fife. In Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (Vol. 123, pp. 43-210). Available here

Mercer, R., Barclay, G., Jordan, D. and Russell-White, C., 1989, November. The Neolithic henge-type enclosure at Balfarg-a re-assessment of the evidence for an incomplete ditch circuit. In Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (Vol. 118, pp. 61-67). Available here

Gibson, A., 2011, November. Dating Balbirnie: recent radiocarbon dates from the stone circle and cairn at Balbirnie, Fife, and a review of its place in the overall Balfarg/Balbirnie site sequence. In Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (Vol. 140, pp. 51-77). Available here

Ritchie, J.G., 1974. Excavation of the stone circle and cairn at Balbirnie, Fife. Archaeological Journal, 131(1), pp.1-32.

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