6 February, 2015

A Deviant Burial at Shanraheen, Co. Kildare

Maeve Tobin highlights an isolated late medieval burial recently excavated in Co. Kildare.


In 2012 monitoring of topsoil stripping along the River Barrow Abstraction Scheme (Contract 2): Srowland to Ardscull Rising Mains revealed numerous isolated features in the townlands of Ardscull, Salisbury, Shanraheen, Ardmore and Willsgrove, Co. Kildare.  The most intriguing of these sites was a single grave recorded at Shanraheen 1, located approximately 2km north of Athy.  The remains were excavated by licenced archaeologist Faith Bailey and the author under licence 11E0460.

The skeleton was extended and supine within a roughly south-north oriented irregular ‘grave’.  The grave does not conform to the regular ‘grave cut’, being very shallow and under-sized for the remains; suggested by upright position of the head.  It was difficult to fully assess the setting as the area had been subject to significant truncation by modern ploughing.  The body did not appear to have been wrapped or shrouded prior to burial as the loose position of the skeleton will testify.  The legs were spaced apart and the hands were loosely crossed over the pelvis.

The remains were in moderate condition and approximately 90% of the skeleton was present for analysis.  It was apparent that some of the upper limb bones and facial bones had been truncated by later agricultural activity.  As the pelvis was largely complete it was possible to determine the sex of this individual as female.  Age at death was estimated by assessing the changes to the auricular surface, the unfused medial epiphyses of the clavicles and dental attrition.  A combined assessment of these features indicated an age category of young adult, which relates in osteological terms to the age range of 18–25 years.

During excavation the position of the skeleton, with the left lower leg turned medially and foot flexed laterally, was thought to possibly indicate trauma at the knee joint.  The displacement of the elements forming the left knee joint suggested that some soft tissue damage had possibly occurred prior to burial, reducing the effectiveness of the tendons and muscles to hold the joint in position while the soil settled around the body. The surface of the proximal tibia was pitted and rough however the corresponding femoral epiphysis was too poorly preserved to provide a complete assessment of the joint.  No further evidence for disease or trauma was noted on the skeletal remains.  The surviving dentition appeared in relatively good health with the exception of two caries and an associated buccal abscess on two lower molars.  Some evidence for nutritional stress in early childhood was also noted on the upper incisors; however this is not so unexpected at this time.

A sample of right fibula was sent for radiocarbon dating and returned a 2σ date range of AD1459–1637 placing the burial on the cusp of the later medieval and post-medieval period.  It is not clear as to why this young woman was not interred in a graveyard, as would have been the general practice during this period.  There was no evidence for associated burials within the surrounding stripped wayleave, which ran along the northern side of an ENE–WSW aligned local road. The burial of this young woman appeared hasty and lacking in respect but perhaps there was a reasonable explanation for this, i.e. fear of contagion.  Deviance in burial practice has been discussed in several forums and the consensus is that difference can be the result of positive or negative influences.

It is difficult not to speculate as to the identity of this young woman and her social role in later medieval/ post-medieval Kildare.  Clearly her burial did not conform to the normative practice of this time.  It is possible that she was a stranger in the land who did not automatically merit burial in consecrated ground or maybe she was a victim of crime, especially when considering the date of the remains (mid-15th to mid-17th century).  Perhaps she broke a law, was an outcast or was separated from her community?  Unfortunately the story of this young woman’s life and death is beyond the scope of archaeology however this excavation has provided a glimpse of an aspect of later and post medieval society not frequently revealed.

Maeve Tobin, Osteoarchaeologist, mtobin@iac.ie