Excitement in Newtownmountkennedy!
On Wednesday, 25th March, I was asked, ‘Did you hear they found a body up by Mountain View?’ ‘Oh my, do they know who it is?’ ‘No, it’s an old one, maybe from 1798’.
There is no shortage of options for the source of ‘bodies’ given the local history. But this one turned out to be much older than anyone would have expected. Indeed, it is of major importance, as our knowledge of who lived in this area in early medieval times is very scanty. When I went up the hill the few hundred yards to have a look, it was obvious that they were cist graves, a particular type of burial arrangement that requires quite a lot of work. First, a hole of the appropriate shape and depth is dug. Then slates of a suitable size have to be got, shaped, and put into the hole, with bracing stones on the outside to support a stone lined burial space, with more slates to close the box, thus protecting the body.
If not for this particular level of effort, the bodies uncovered this past spring would have been much the worse for wear as the digger scraped down into the soil to prepare the area for the construction of houses. Instead, it merely moved the topping slates. Cist graves are typical of a certain period in history, and expert opinion on the three that have come to light places them in the 6th or 7th century, the 500s or 600s AD. That’s at least 1,500 years ago. Technically speaking, these particular graves are ‘lintel’ graves because there was no stone lining the bottom of the grave, but that’s not obvious until an excavation has been carried out.
The National Monument Service was duly contacted, and the area secured and protected. Then, an archaeological contractor was hired by Wicklow County Council to conduct an excavation that will yield the maximum amount of information from these bodies. Yvonne Whitty and her team, a Co. Wicklow enterprise, were the ones chosen. The dig was conducted from 31st March to 7th April 2021. Here’s what they discovered.
Preliminary analysis indicates all three bodies were women over the age of 35. They were laid roughly parallel to one another, one facing due east, the other two slightly turned to the south. (See Figs. 1a and 1b, North is at the top and the red and white rod represents a metre.)
Burial 1 was the least preserved of the skeletons. This was because the topping slates appear to have collapsed into the grave at a much earlier time. This allowed more soil into the grave, which then came into contact with the body. Due to the acidic nature of the soil, it more rapidly corrupted the bone, which then disintegrated. Interestingly, a flat stone appears to have been placed on the body at the time of burial, as can be seen in Fig. 2. The left arm is lying on top of the stone. What might be the story behind this! This grave also contained a piece of charcoal, which will be another potential source of information.
Burial 2 was better preserved than the first one, but was otherwise unremarkable, see Fig. 3. What might make it of greater interest later would be if the chemical and DNA testing would tell us that it is not a local person.
Burial 3 was in the best state of preservation. It can be seen from the way the bones lay, with feet close together and arms folded over the body that it had originally been held in a shroud, or sheet wrapped around the body (see Fig. 4). This identifies them as Christians. It was the practice in this time period, done to replicate the way the body of Jesus was said to have been.
Fig. 4 also reveals that the woman was buried diagonally in the grave. This would suggest that the grave was dug and constructed a bit too short for the body. Oops!
The other interesting feature of these graves is that they are not intercut, that is, that none of them was buried in such a way that their spaces overlapped. This means either that the graves were marked, letting people know where they were, or they were buried within a relatively short time of each other. Carbon 14 testing will tell us if the latter is the case.
Who might these people be and what more can the excavation tell us?
As mentioned before, these burials are extremely important as a window into the lives of the people who lived in this area 1500 years ago. This was a time before the O’Byrnes and the O’Tooles, or even the Vikings, had come into this territory. They were relatively small groupings of people collectively referred to as the ‘stranger people of Leinster’, or the Fortutha Laighen.
Previous excavations done for the Wicklow Hills estate have revealed that people have lived in this area for at least 3,000 years and possibly up to 5,000. There was a ringfort 50m in diameter located on the Monalin townland just up from the initial roundabout coming into Wicklow Hills. Nearby are other features associated with human settlement such as fulacht fia (a water heating construction, used for cooking food – especially for feasts, making beer, or taking a bath), a kiln, post holes typical of houses, and evidence of metal working.
We know very little about the type of farming they might have practiced. It is likely, however, that they thrived on import trade. Most people on the island then lived in the central areas. Anything that came in from outside had to come through the people on the coasts. Our locals here would have controlled the passes through the Wicklow mountains and so would have taken a cut of the value of goods making their way inwards.
A characteristic of the time period of these burials is that Christianity had made significant inroads among the population. There would have been communities of Christians in this area as is evident from the townland names. Killadreenan, Kilmacullagh, Kilmullin, Kilpedder, Kilmurry, Kilquade, and Kilcoole are all either contiguous or nearby each other. The word ‘cill’ in Irish, anglicised as Kill in placenames, indicates the presence of a church but the remoteness in time has sometimes led to the forgetting of church locations in these areas. It was only recently that textual evidence of a church in Kilmacullagh resurfaced. It is also likely that the area referred to as ‘Newtown’ since at least the 17th century was previously part of Kilmacullagh.
Yvonne Whitty’s final report will contain the results of the osteological analysis, something carried out by a bone specialist, C14 dating, and pottery and charcoal analyses. Strontium is a chemical found in teeth that tells us where the person lived as a child, and isotopes in the bones tell us where they lived more recently. If the bone is suitable, there will also be a DNA test to help us know where their ancestors hailed from. All this will enable us to understand the story of these three individuals which will greatly add to our knowledge of burial practices in early medieval Ireland as well as the lives of those who lived here before us.
Here is a link to an associated post to read comments on the Newtownmountkennedy District Forum page.
Therese Hicks, Newtownmountkennedy
Sources: Yvonne Whitty kindly made her preliminary excavation report available to the author, much of the information and all the pictures and the illustration come from this report.