Reprinted from Archaeology Ireland

Palaeopathologists Laureen Buckley, Eileen Murphy and Barra O Donnabhain give their expert opinion on the problems of dealing with human remains recovered from archaeological excavations.


        Thomas Browne (1605-1682)


AS A GROUP of osteoarchaeologists (human remains specialists), we would like to congratulate Tom Condit on his excellent editorial in the last issue of Archaeology Ireland. on the subject of the treatment of human remains.

The excavation of cemeteries is an emotive issue. Whilst the public perception of archaeology is most often linked with the recovery of rich cultural assemblages, i.e. gold or silver. it is also commonly associated with digging up skeletons. Part of this fascination with skeletal remains is that behind the morbid curiosity lies a realisation that we are in fact "staring death in the face".

The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines archaeology as 'the study of human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of physical remains'. Skeletons are the physical remains of people and it must not he forgotten that it was people who made the pottery, crafted the metalwork and built the churches and castles. Whilst it is true that the best historical records survive for the richest and most powerful, the ordinary undocumented people are discovered in archaeological excavation, It is only through excavation that the nature of their existence can be revealed, Through the analysis of their remains and what this can tell us, their deaths give meaning to their lives.

The recent upsurge in the 'Celtic Tiger' economy has led to a huge increase in development and consequentially the discovery of many previously unknown or forgotten cemeteries. We agree totally with the editorial that sampling of human remains is not good practice either at excavation level or at post-excavation analysis stage. Would one sample ring-pins or pottery? Therefore why even think of doing this to human remains? It is only through statistical analysis of the overall population of a site that one can build up a true picture of that group. If it is a poor urban medieval parish does this show in traces of malnutrition on the bones or high infant mortality rates? How would this compare to a richer parish in the same city, and what of the urban/rural dichotomy? Only by looking at larger groups can one start to make comparisons across the widest time-scale. How have people developed over the centuries? In the case of the old commonly held myth that people were much smaller in the past, comparisons of 2,000 individuals across 4 millennia with the average for today show the myth to be wrong.



DATE (A.D.) 





Early Christian


Late Medieval


(c. 400-1100)


(c. 1400-1600)

173 (5' 8")

170 (5' 7")

170 (5' 7")

174 (5' 9")

160 (5' 3")

158 (5' 2")

159 (5' 2.5")

161 (5' 3")

Comparison of the stature of large groups shows that the early Irish were not significantly shorter than the modern population.


  While it is always of interest to see special cases of disease showing in the skeletal record and there is a widespread public fascination with the more gory details such as beheading, it is through the analysis of a broad sweep through a cemetery that the true picture of life in the past emerges. Indeed osteoarchaeologists have in the past been of use to modern medical science as they are in the unique position of seeing the disease processes on bare bones. The Danish osteoarchaeologist Dr Moller Christensen at the excavation of a medieval leper hospital showed that facial bone destruction was an early sign of the disease. His pioneering work on 'old bones' enabled leprosy to be diagnosed earlier, making treatment more effective.

We do recognise that there is archaeological evidence for the digging up and moving of previous interments. This can be seen in the form of charnel pits and groups of disarticulated bone bundled together where a later grave has cut an earlier one.

However, it is not on the same scale as the wholesale clearance of cemetery sites that is being undertaken today. If these sites cannot be avoided then excavation must be seen to be carried out to the highest scientific standards and with the utmost sensitivity. The same rigorous standards must also be applied to the remains post- exhumation. To examine the artefacts from a cemetery site and analyse the grave-types but not fully and properly deal with the people buried there would be nothing short of grave- robbing. In the next few months the IAPA sub-committee on human remains will be producing guidelines for archaeologists which will set standards for all aspects of a subject that we all must face in the end our final resting place!

  "As I am now so shall ye be ..."

The Goldyng tomb, St Peter's, Drogheda.