Human Osteoarchaeology in Ireland: Past, Present and Future. (Special Section)

Article excerpt

Key-words: human skeletons, osteoarchaeology, palaeopathology, Ireland


The archaeological study of human skeletal remains has been undertaken in Ireland since the mid 19th century. This paper examines the development of human bone studies in Ireland up until the present day, reviews the various approaches which have been adopted, and takes a look at the formal structure of the discipline within an Irish context. The objective is to provide an overview of the study of archaeological human skeletal remains in Ireland from the 19th century through to modern times.

Early anthropologists

Invariably 19th- and early 20th-century research on archaeological human skeletal remains throughout the world tended to focus on craniometrical analysis for the purposes of racial determination. These data were then used to differentiate between intrusive and indigenous populations, thereby enabling a reconstruction of the racial history of a region to be undertaken. Ireland was no exception to this trend. In 1935 Cecil Martin published a book entitled Prehistoric man in Ireland, the first synthesis textbook to have been written about Irish archaeological human skeletal remains. In addition to writing about his own research, Martin provides a succinct overview of the work of his predecessors. He credits Sir William Wilde, Oscar Wilde's father, with having attempted the first scientific account of the different races who had invaded and populated Ireland (Martin 1935: 32). A methodological advance was then made in 1853 when Grattan developed an instrument for making accurate measurements of human skulls (Grattan 1853). He proceeded to measure Irish skulls using his new technique, which saw their sub-division into two groups--`primeval' and `remote, but not primeval' (Martin 1935: 33).

In 1866 Huxley wrote descriptions of a number of Irish skulls, but his main objective was to show that the `river-bed type' which he had first identified among prehistoric skulls of the Trent Valley of England had also been present in Ireland (Martin 1935: 33). During the 1890s a number of other scholars, including Frazer (1890-91), Haddon (1896-98) and Borlase (1897), also provided their views of the racial history of Ireland, while early 20th-century interpretations of Irish human skeletal remains included that undertaken by Macalister (1921). Returning to Martin's own research, he cautiously provided an outline of the racial history of Ireland which saw five possible incursions into the island up to, and including, the Viking invasions (Martin 1935: 157-63).

Craniological and osteometrical analysis of Irish archaeological populations remained fashionable throughout the early and middle 20th century, and a number of monumental studies were undertaken using this approach. This work included Howell's (1941) study of the Early Christian human skeletal material from Gallen Priory, Co. Offaly, and McLoughlin's (1950) analysis of the human skeletons from the Early Christian cemetery at Castleknock, Co. Dublin. A major anthropometric study of the peoples of Northern Ireland was undertaken during the late 1930s and early 1940s (Walmsley & Mogey 1939; Walmsley et al 1942; 1943; 1946). In addition, during the 1930s and 1940s excavation reports included in the Ulster Journal of Archaeology are peppered with reports on skeletal analyses undertaken by Prof. T. Walmsley of the Department of Anatomy, Queen's University Belfast, while during the 1950s and 1960s he was succeeded by Dr W.R.M. Morton and Dr J.H. Scott, also of that department.

Unusual palaeopathological lesions were occasionally remarked upon in the early anthropological studies, but they were generally of secondary interest rather than the main focus of the research. One of the exceptions to this situation was the publication of a note by Walmsley (1923) on a cranium which displayed a trepanation and was recovered from Nendrum monastery, Co. …