Elizabeth O’Brien’s book Mapping Death (see the ‘Further reading’ box on p.35) is the result of 40 years of research into burial practices during the 1,000-year period that starts in the late Iron Age (c.200 BC) and ends just before the Viking period (c.AD 800). Her study resulted in the ‘Mapping Death’ online database of burials and burial sites in Ireland (www.mappingdeath db.ie), compiled from published reports going back to the 19th century, as well as grey literature from development-led excavations that have brought the discovery of dozens of new cemetery sites of this period throughout Ireland. These more recent excavations benefit from radiocarbon dates and strontium and oxygen isotopic evidence, all of which is detailed in her book, which encompasses 68 Iron Age sites, 156 secular early medieval cemeteries, and 27 ecclesiastical cemetery sites in total.
Like much of Scotland, Ireland traded with the Roman Empire (see CA 317) but was never colonised, and so there is much greater continuity over this great span of time than in much of England and Wales. This makes it easier in some ways to spot cultural changes that might have been introduced through trade, diplomatic contact, or migration. It also means that the period straddles prehistory (when the only evidence we have is archaeological) and the beginnings of literature. Useful information can be extracted about death and burial from early medieval saints’ lives, annals, and secular and Church laws, including insights into the rationale behind the burial practices that prevailed at the time these works were written down.
O’Brien’s analysis begins in the Iron Age, when the indigenous burial rite was a continuation of the later Bronze Age practice of cremation, but with an intriguing difference: the use of pottery was abandoned for both funerary and domestic purposes at some point between 700 and 400 BC. Native pottery does not re-emerge in Ireland until the later 8th century. The reason for this cultural change is not known, but it has interesting implications for the very early medieval period in England and Wales, which is also aceramic. The sudden end to the Roman-British pottery industry is seen as a symptom of decline in England and Wales, but it looks much more like a deliberate choice. The Iron Age people of Ireland and the post-Roman people of England and Wales clearly preferred vessels of carved wood, leather, cloth, metal, stone, horn, and bone for both domestic and ritual purposes – and maybe ceramic was associated with something they disliked.
In Ireland, instead of a funerary urn, cremated bone was collected from the pyre and placed in an organic container for burial. When burials lack dateable ceramics, archaeologists have to detect Iron Age burials by stratigraphic relationships, radiocarbon-dating, or by the small personal adornments that were included at just under half of the burial sites – sometimes burned and fused from the funeral pyre and sometimes added unburnt to the cremated remains as part of a separate burial rite. Glass beads are the most numerous, followed by brooch and mirror-handle fragments, rings, bone or antler gaming pieces, and, in one case, a small, finely decorated, unburnt but damaged cylindrical bronze box. The beads and the box are most closely paralleled by examples from England (the box being similar to one from Chariot Burial 2 at Wetwang Slack, Yorkshire – see CA 363) and Scotland. Their import could be evidence of trade, or of the movement of people across the Irish Sea.
The inclusion of both burnt and unburnt animal bone in some deposits suggests an element of feasting as part of the rites for the deceased, which began with the cremation process – perhaps a very public spectacle, symbolic of the liberation of the spirit from the body – followed some time later by selective burial of a small portion of the cremated remains, perhaps as a smaller and more private ceremony. At ten of the 68 sites in the study, the remains were inserted into existing Bronze Age burial monuments, and in 42 cases they were buried in Iron Age mounds and ring-ditches that imitated the form of older monuments. These were constructed among existing Neolithic and Bronze Age burial monuments, demonstrating continuing veneration of the ancestors and perhaps a sense that all the dead live on together in another world.
Known burial sites account for a minute fraction of the population of Ireland at the time, so it is difficult to tell whether cremation and resulting burial was typical or whether it was a special rite reserved for particular members of society. Pyre sites are elusive, and experimental archaeology shows that those constructed on flat ground (as distinct from those built over a pit) leave very few traces. The remains are quickly dispersed by wind, rain, ploughing, and soil erosion. Burial might always have been an exception. Eleven flat cremation cemeteries have been found, however, with no recognisable monument above ground to indicate their presence. Since these burials were invisible until discovered by chance, it is possible that there are many more burials of this kind that we do not know about and that burial might have been a much more common rite than the excavated finds suggest.
There are two outstanding exceptions to these general patterns. The cremated remains of an older man were discovered in a promontory fort at Fore, Co. Westmeath, placed in a bronze bowl of 1st-century AD type, probably imported from Britain. This prestigious object, perhaps used in gift exchange, was probably the prized possession of the individual whose remains were buried in it. The second example, found in 1852, consisted of a green glass urn containing cremated bone, covered by a bronze mirror – a style of burial for which the closest parallels are again in the Romanised parts of 1st-century AD Britain.
Romano-British influence is even clearer in the case of a small group of inhumation burials found in 1837 at Bray, Co. Wicklow, where workmen erecting gateposts found several individuals buried side by side along with coins of Trajan (r. AD 97-117) and Hadrian (r. AD 117-138). At the time, they were interpreted as shipwreck victims, but current thinking is that they may have been associated with an early 2nd-century AD Romano-British trading post. Another group of migrants from across the Irish Sea has been found in the form of 14 crouched burials inserted around the Neolithic passage grave at Knowth, Co. Meath, and its satellite tombs. Isotope analysis of the teeth from six of these burials shows that four of them (three adults and a child) came from north-eastern Britain, where crouched burial was the tradition in the late Iron Age. The burials were accompanied by large numbers of small blue glass beads, perhaps sewn onto the burial garments, and these individuals are thought to represent a kin group for whom burial within an ancient burial complex was clearly of some symbolic importance.
This rare example in Ireland of the crouched burial rite had no influence on the indigenous population at the time. Cremation continued to be the mainstream burial rite until extended inhumation was introduced to Ireland in the 4th or early 5th century, probably as a result of trading, in tandem with the spread of Christianity to Ireland from the Romanised parts of western Britain. For the next 300 years, cremation continued as a minority rite in parallel with inhumation. Although inhumation came to be identified with Christianity, it was used much more widely, and so archaeologists are not able to assume that every inhumation represents a Christian burial. Indeed, the point that Christians and pagans were buried together in identical fashion is made by two literary sources from the 7th century that refer to an incident when St Patrick, travelling along a road, stopped at two adjacent graves, one marked with a wooden cross. When questioned, a voice from the grave marked with the cross admitted that he was a pagan and that the cross had been placed in error on his grave rather than that of his Christian neighbour.
Fortunately, archaeologists do not have to depend on voices from the grave to distinguish Christian from pagan, because Christian burials from the 6th century onwards used winding sheets for burial, in imitation of the Gospel descriptions of Christ’s body being wrapped in strips of linen. Bodies thus wrapped can be recognised by the closeness of the arms to the body and the legs to each other, while the foot bones are often commingled. By contrast, unwrapped bodies are more spread, especially their foot bones.
Christian grave types cannot always be distinguished from pagan, however. Manufactured wooden or stone coffins are unknown in Ireland at this time, and some bodies were simply laid in the ground, but some graves were lined and roofed by timber planks or stone. Bodies might also have been surrounded by selected stones, which could have supported a wooden grave cover.
Isolated burial, rather than burial in a formally organised cemetery, continued to be the norm during the 4th to 7th centuries. The Iron Age practice of inserting human remains into prehistoric burial mounds seems to have ceased c.AD 200, only to be revived c.AD 400 and continued until c.AD 700. Nobody has been able to explain the 200-year gap, nor the reason for the reintroduction of the practice, but some memory of past practice must have survived, because a 7th-century account of the life of St Patrick says that two daughters of the king of Tara, whom Patrick had converted, were ‘buried in a circular ring-ditch… because that is what the heathen Irish used to do’. Clearly nobody thought it odd or wrong to mix pagan and Christian customs, and high-born Christian individuals were still being selected for burial among the pagan ancestors.
In part, this might be explained by Irish law tracts dating from the 7th and 8th centuries, which frequently refer to burial monuments as territorial boundary markers. A specific legal process is described whereby anyone seeking title to a property had to obtain the permission of the ancestors who were seen as guardians of the land and who could make their wishes clear through natural signs and omens. Incorporating the remains of important individuals into the ancestral environment could thus be interpreted as an act by the legitimate occupants of the land undertaken to reinforce their dynastic title. Alternatively, an intrusive group might insert their own ‘guardians’ as a way of legitimising their claim to a territory – much as (Elizabeth O’Brien observes) later medieval genealogies were manipulated by the insertion of the names of ancestors from whom the present generation claimed to be descended.
Settling on cemeteries
New mounds and ring-ditches continued to be constructed in imitation of ancestral monuments and these gradually evolved into formally organised communal cemeteries, a practice unknown in Ireland until the late 4th century that continued into the 7th century. The first grave to be inserted into a newly constructed cemetery was perhaps seen as a foundation burial. These could contain the remains of a solitary adult or adolescent (male or female), or an adult and child, or even a family group: the stone-lined grave within a ring-ditch at the centre of a cemetery at Ninch 3, Co. Meath contained a man and a woman as well as two children. Foundation burials were placed within the area enclosed by the ditch. Subsequently, further interments occurred within or around the enclosed area, possibly as a result of certain families returning to the same location to bury their dead over an extended period of time, eventually leading to a cemetery with anything from 24 to 100 or more burials.
Surprisingly, too, we now know from strontium- and oxygen-isotopic analysis that some of these foundation burials contain the remains of migrants. Isotopic analysis has been obtained from 54 burials from 20 early medieval sites, and though this represents a tiny fraction of excavated burials, the results nevertheless give us an insight into the mobility of people at this time. Ten individuals were probably migrants from outside Ireland, nine could have been born in Ireland or Britain, 11 were Irish-born but not from the locality in which they were buried, and the remaining 24 had been born in the same area where they were buried. Those from overseas include people from eastern and central Europe, Scandinavia, and north Africa or southern Spain, as well northern and western Britain.
As O’Brien observes, such results are consistent with the findings of similar research into early medieval burials in south Wales, where individuals from Ireland have been identified, all of which confirms literary accounts of the extensive travel undertaken, mainly by clerics and scholars, between Ireland, Britain, and the Continent in this period. Indeed, early Irish laws state that freemen were permitted to travel for military service, pilgrimage, or for study, while Aldhelm (AD 639-709), writing towards the end of the 7th century, refers scathingly to the numbers of ‘students by the fleet-load’ travelling to Ireland, ostensibly to further their education. Clearly some of these individuals became integrated into local society, and some ended up as the possible progenitors of new family lines. Women, however, form the most numerous group of non-local burials (albeit only just: 15, compared to 13 men), and this perhaps represents exogamous marriage practices, whereby the women marry outside of their kinship group.
An interesting variation on the theme of these organised and long-lived burial sites is the settlement cemetery, where the cemetery is invariably located in a central position within an enclosure that is otherwise used as a livestock corral or for industrial activities, such as cereal-drying and -milling and metalworking. Seldom is there any evidence for domestic habitation at these sites, and Elizabeth O’Brien suggests this represents a pragmatic separation of potentially polluting and dangerous activities involving the use of fire from the areas where people were living in structures of timber and thatch. Probably used by several local kin groups, the inclusion of a cemetery at the heart of farming and industrial sites suggests again that the ancestors were considered to be guardians of these important activities.
By contrast with the Iron Age, the inclusion of grave goods within pagan and Christian inhumations in the early medieval period is very rare indeed. Only 89 of the 11,000 burials studied (0.81 per cent) have grave goods, and these usually involve relatively minor artefacts. This is true even of the quartz pebbles commonly encountered in early medieval graves in Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and the Isle of Man. White stones have also been found in hundreds of Neolithic mounds. Classical writers attributed healing and protective powers to quartz, while Christianity adopted white stones to symbolise baptism and resurrection. In Ireland there is a notable decline in their use as grave goods from the 7th century. It is possible that white stones were initially used to distinguish Christian from pagan graves but, once the majority of the deceased were Christian, they were reserved for newly baptised individuals, an idea supported by the frequency with which they occur in the graves of children.
From the early 8th century, the Church authorities in Ireland began to regulate the lives of Christians to a far greater degree than in the past, including the rules for burial. Biblical justification could be found for the secular desire to be buried in the grave of one’s ancestors, but monks and clerics were expected to prefer the cemetery of the church or monastery to which they were affiliated. The Church offered persuasive arguments for burial within an ecclesiastic or monastic cemetery: the angels whose task was to carry the souls of the deceased to heaven were, according to canon law, unwilling to visit the places where evil men (that is, pagans) were buried. It is clear, too, that money was at stake: canon law allowed lots to be drawn to decide how much of a deceased person’s estate should go to the Church and how much to the upkeep of an ancestral cemetery, ‘but he ought to contribute the greater gift to the Church’, presumably in return for prayers for his or her soul.
O’Brien says that all the literary and canonical evidence suggests that the Church was seeking to overturn strong political and familial resistance to the abandonment of ancestral burial places, even after three centuries of Christianity. The archaeological evidence suggests they were ultimately successful. The use of cremation and burial within an ancient monument had virtually ceased by the early 9th century, though burial within some settlement and secular cemeteries continued right up until the further Church reforms of the 12th century. It is entirely possible that the Church authorities sought to make burial within a monastic cemetery more attractive by making it more exclusive – a closely guarded privilege, perhaps reserved for those of high status willing to make a generous gift to the institution. Or perhaps there was an element of backing both horses: some members of a community or kin group were buried in a church cemetery and others in the secular ancestral cemetery. In the end, though, it seems that burial among ‘the saints’ became an acceptable substitute for burial among the ancestors.
Elizabeth O’Brien, Mapping Death: burial in late Iron Age and early medieval Ireland (Four Courts Press, ISBN 978-1846628591, £50).