The Osteoarchaeological report on the remains at Dunmore was completed by Camilla Lofqvist. What follows is an abridged version of the introduction section of her report, the sex of the remains and their age profile. In the next post we’ll look at their stature and general health. References will follow in a later post. The summary of the excavation can be found here.
It is not often the opportunity arises to analyse a substantial human bone material and in this sense the Dunmore bone sample is exceptional. Ideally, all individuals would need to be recovered from a graveyard to enable a greater estimation of the population statistics but the sizeable sample from Dunmore presents a rare chance to examine the general demography of a community (Arcini, 1999:47).
The osteological examination of the bones revealed that the human remains were from 340 individuals comprising 159 adults, 31 juveniles and 150 children. The information retrieved from each burial i.e. age at death, gender, stature, physique, cause of death, quality of diet, any long term illness or condition, manner of lifestyle (e.g. physical work), has helped to build a profile of life and death in Dunmore and has provided us with an interesting, fascinating and rare opportunity to study the everyday life of the population of this north Galway community in the 15th to 18th century.
The common medieval graveyards in Europe were often surrounded by walls, hedges or banks and the parish church was often located within their boundaries. However, occasionally the parish graveyard was associated with, for example, centres of education or religious institutions. An expansion of religious orders such as the Franciscans and the Jesuits during the Counter-Reformation resulted in the option of being buried within the monastic graveyards. The location of a burial in the graveyard was considered to be of importance and a burial inside or around the porch of the church was reserved for the most important and most well situated individuals of the society. The less well off were interred outside the church where the preferred location was just to the south of the church wall, although a location to the east and west were accepted. The north of the church was considered the Devil’s side of the church and was mostly avoided. In Dunmore the remains were generally orientated east-west in the Christian tradition (fortuitously running in line with the trench for the surface water sewer). This coincidence in alignment allowed, for the most part, the full recovery of the individual skeletons. In most cases, the remains were uniformly aligned in the extended supine position with the head at the western terminal facing east, the arms and hands were generally crossed over the pelvis/chest or simply extended by the side. The feet were in the majority of cases placed side by side.
In the medieval period it was common to cut through previous burials. The larger skeletal fragments of the disturbed remains were stacked in one corner of the new grave or, if the fragments were small, were just left in the soil used to backfill the gravecut. It was also common to place disturbed human remains in a communal ossuary. This tradition tends to live on in Ireland and England up to present day (Mytum, 2004:160). The numerous stray human bones and the high degree of intercutting of the burials at Dunmore suggests there was a high demand on space in the graveyard. It is possible the pressure to inter the inhabitants within its grounds, resulting in frequent intercutting, could have been due to the lack of space but it could also be that certain areas in the graveyard were favoured, such as a location close to the church. Many of the burials did respect previous ones indicating that there may have been external markers on the surface demarcating individual plots. In a number of cases there was evidence of burials interred in very close proximity suggesting the possibility of family plots that were re-used over generations. The location of the burials in Dunmore suggests these individuals were not from the highest stratum of the society. It is likely the graves of the more well off in Dunmore were located within or just outside the church.
The most common method of interment during this period was a simple earth grave, often with a rectangular shape. At times the gravecuts in Dunmore were clearly visible but often the shape of the cut was unclear due to intercutting or other factors. However, the shape of the cuts seemed to vary, occasionally the cut was so narrow that the skeleton seemed to have been squeezed into it resulting in a raising of the shoulders. The depths of the burials also varied. It was notable that the earlier, deeper inhumations appeared to have had wider cuts and the remains were less constricted. Later burials were interred in narrower cuts and the limbs seemed more confined. This lack of available plot space may indicate a degree of congestion within the graveyard in the late seventeenth to early eighteenth century.
The lack of any associated coffins suggests that the inhumations in Dunmore were interred in simple grave cuts, probably wrapped in a shroud fixed with a pin or nail. In England regulations were brought in between 1660 – 1678 stating that these shrouds had to be of wool. This was done to increase and support the English wool industry. Any headstones that may have originally been erected were likely removed off site in the mid eighteenth century under the direction of Lord Ross to clear a path for the avenue leading to his demesne. Amongst the corpus of skeletons there was no obvious distinction between gender or age. Males and females were found buried alongside infant, juvenile and adult remains confirming the community nature of the graveyard as distinct from a burial ground solely servicing a monastic order.
The Dunmore sample suggests that a slightly higher degree of males (46.5%) were present in the skeletal assemblage compared to females (41.5%). However, it should be remembered that c. 12% of the individuals in Dunmore could not be ascribed to either sex due to the deteriorated and fragmented state of the bone.
The 340 individuals recovered in Dunmore, of varying ages and conditions of preservation, represented the remains of 150 children (age-at-death ≤ 12 years), 31 juveniles (age-at-death between c. 12-20 years) and 159 adult individuals (age-at-death >20 years). In general, children tend to be most frequently represented in the archaeological record, followed by young adults and a more limited number of older adult individuals.
The high frequency of children and young adults in the Dunmore material and the less frequent retrieval of older adults conforms to the common findings of other graveyard material. However, the possibility of older individuals being buried in a different location in the graveyard and therefore not recovered must be considered.
Next time – the stature and general health of the Dunmore remains.