28 April, 2016

6th/7th Century Burials at Britonstown

Maeve Tobin delves into the excavation of an early medieval cemetery at Britonstown, Co. Wicklow discussed in the recent issue of the Journal of Irish Archaeology.


In March 1980 three lintel burials were discovered in the front garden of a newly constructed bungalow in Britonstown, Co. Wicklow. These burials, and associated features, were subsequently excavated and recorded as SMR WI009-039.  Over three decades later, in January 2013, further burial remains were identified during ground works for a percolation area 4m to the northeast. An opportunity arose to further investigate part of this cemetery, funded by the National Monuments Service, Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, and directed by Faith Bailey of IAC (Licence Ref. 13E0032).

Examination of the 2013 excavation results, in tandem with a review of the 1980s evidence (Bourke and Clinton 1983/4), provided an interesting insight into the 6th–7th century AD lintel cemetery at Britonstown. In all, 5 neat rows containing 35 WSW–ENE oriented grave cuts were recorded. Interestingly there appeared to have been evidence for robbing of lintel stones from several graves which would suggest that the burial locations continued in living memory for a long period. The 1980s burials were found in direct association with pits containing residues of possible blacksmithing waste; suggestive of a nearby settlement. The only artefact retrieved from the burial area included a quartz manuport, which appeared to have been deposited by the head of the young adult in a stone-lined grave.

Access to the skeletal remains and metallurgical waste from the earlier excavation was made available by the National Museum of Ireland at their Collections Resource Centre in Swords. Preservation levels varied greatly between the 2013 and 1980 skeletal with the former rated as very poor and the latter as moderate. The poor preservation limited the results of the osteological analysis however it was possible to attain some basic demographic data, indicating the presence of adults, adolescents and children. It may be significant that the only adult remains with indicators of sex present were recorded as females or possible females. While this may speculatively indicate distinction in burial areas for males and females it is more likely a product of poor preservation. It is probable that this burial ground supported a local familial secular community.

It had been noted, prior to the construction of the bungalow, that a mound had overlaid the burial area. A large enclosure, measuring c. 100m in diameter, was also identified on aerial photographs (Google Earth 2010) partially surrounding the cemetery. An oblique aerial photograph from the ESB Archives taken just after the construction of the Poulaphuca Dam shows the possible outline of the circular enclosure to the northeast of the road that bisects the site. Metallurgical residues and a quern fragment retrieved during the 1980 excavation are indicative of iron-working and domestic activity; although it is not known if this was contemporary with the burial activity. All of the available information suggests that the Britonstown burial area likely represents a ‘cemetery settlement’.

A discussion, published in the recent JIA (Tobin and Bailey 2015), on the siting and form of the burial area at Britonstown suggests that the site was chosen for its prominent location to the immediate south of the River Liffey, a significant territorial boundary. Furthermore the site at Britonstown is located close to an ancient route way, possibly used by pilgrims to Glendalough. The investigations and research undertaken to date add significantly to our knowledge of the early medieval landscape on the boundary of Wicklow and Kildare.

Further Reading:

Bourke, C. and Clinton, M. 1983/84. Three long cists at Britonstown. Journal of the County Kildare Archaeological Society, 16 (4), 366–370.

Tobin, M. & Bailey, F. 2015 Burials and Boundaries at Britonstown, Co. Wicklow. Journal of Irish Archaeology,23 (2014), 157–169.