Carowkeel - Early Medieval Killeen Cemetery

Journeys Through Grief – Part 1

The Galway to Ballinasloe N6 road scheme in the Republic of Ireland was 56 km long: metre for metre, one of the largest archaeological projects anywhere in the world. The archaeology found along the scheme has shed new light on the treatment of the dead at crucial stages of Irish history. In the first of our new three part series we assess the evidence.

Osteoarchaeologists at Rubicon Heritage analyse an assembalge of human bone from a cemetery site

As an archaeologist, I occasionally have to excavate human remains, and it can be vivid and unsettling. I sometimes wonder if the ethical professionalism surrounding me on site (not to mention the unruly, gallows humour in the site hut) is also an attempt to insulate our modern sensibilities from what would otherwise be a truly frightening experience—to face the dead and, by reflection, our own mortality.

If archaeologists study the material remains of the human past – the things that people left behind – then it stands to reason that sooner or later they will come face to face with the mortal remains of the people who created that past in the first place. There were 13 funerary sites discovered on the N6 and each is worthy of an article in itself. They included one late Neolithic and one early Bronze Age cremation site, four Bronze Age cremation sites, one Bronze Age funerary pyre, one Iron Age cremation, one multi-period cemetery, one early Medieval transitionary burial, two early Medieval cemeteries and one post-Medieval children’s burial ground. Rather than speed through the individual details of each, this feature will focus on just three of those sites – the Bronze Age pyre at Newford, a transitionary burial from Ballygarraun West and the early medieval cemetery at Carrowkeel. As these sites show, there were a multitude of different cultural expressions for mortuary behaviour in Prehistoric and medieval Ireland. With such a great time span to get to grips with, we might begin by asking how do we learn from the dead?

One of the great paradoxes of funerary archaeology is that human skeletons often reveal more about the life of an individual than their death. Osteoarchaeology uses scientific techniques developed in modern medicine to assess how long people lived, their sex, diet, stature and whether they suffered illness or disease. Valuable information in itself, but the scope of funerary archaeology is much broader. Mortuary behaviour is not just concerned with the dead but also the living people who buried them, and this evidence is harder to obtain. A funeral can involve many activities whose trace is ephemeral and fragmentary, such as ceremony and feasting, and may have held more significance to the contemporary mourners than the single moment when remains were deposited in the ground.

To broaden the scope of their analysis and offset the potential for biases, archaeologists use anthropological models to understand the diversity of funerary remains. These concepts have been developed by carefully observing funerary customs in different types of societies all over the world. This breadth of knowledge is vital, because we study the past not to mirror our own behaviour but to understand past societies in terms of their own lived experiences. By developing a nuanced understanding of what has been called a structured ‘choreography’ common to all mortuary rituals, archaeologists can breath life back into mortuary remains from both the near and distant past.

Modern sensibilities

Perhaps this can be illustrated by comparing the differences between how the dead are treated in modern Britain and Ireland. Cremation is the usual funerary rite in modern Britain, practiced by 72% of the population (Parker Pearson 1999, 41), with a memorial service in church followed by burning in crematoria, usually zoned at the edge of town. But in Ireland, burial is the usual funeral rite. In its traditional form this is preceded by a ‘wake’—a mourning custom requiring the corpse to be constantly attended. Beginning at the time of death and continuing throughout the night, music, food and drink are all heavily consumed, with stories told to celebrate the life of the deceased. During the crucial hours of darkness, the superstitious may insist that all mirrors be turned around, that windows are opened for two hours and then firmly closed, and that the women of the house maintain their ‘keening’—a vocal lamentation over the corpse. The following afternoon the body is removed to the church, where it spends the night before burial, bringing to an end a cycle of grief with what psychologists would call ‘closure’.

At face value these differences could be explained as a consequence of different religious beliefs, but history shows that cremation was only legalised in Britain in 1884. The widespread adoption of cremation was driven by social changes related to industrial urbanisation, awareness of hygiene and medicalised attitudes to the corpse. Whilst it may be possible to identify these trends from a range of historical sources from the recent past, how are we to explain deeper traditions like the Irish wake, whose origins stretch further back than our records allow? What connection could this possibly have with the sites we’ll be discussing later—the Bronze Age pyre at Newford, or the early medieval cemetery at Carrowkeel?

Tune in next Friday, for part two in a journeys through grief. Many thanks to Rubicon Heritage (see HERE) on who’s behalf the site was excavated, and to Brian MacDomhnaill (see HERE) who took the photographs.

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