Burren skeleton unlocks secrets to 16th century life

Burren skeleton unlocks secrets to 16th century life


cave-excavation-burren-ballyvaughanForensic-level investigations of a skeleton discovered in a cave in Co. Clare have shed fascinating new light on the life and death of a teenage boy who died in or around the 16th century.

A human skull discovered by cavers in a cave outside Ballyvaughan village in the Burren in 2011 prompted a rescue archaeological excavation funded by the National Monuments Service of the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. The full scientific investigations of the skeleton have just been published revealing incredible details about the boy’s life.

At the time of excavation, the small size of the skeleton led the team to think it was of a child. However, subsequent analysis of the teeth in particular revealed the remains belonged to someone who had died aged between 14 to 16 years old. There was evidence of stunted growth, almost certainly a result of malnutrition and hunger. The adolescent measured 4 ft. 1 inch in height – the equivalent of an average 8 year old child by modern standards, or an 11-12 year old by post-medieval standards. The stunted growth also meant that the sex of the individual could not be determined by normal archaeological methods.

Tooth samples were sent to two different laboratories for ancient DNA analysis and both confirmed the individual was a teenage boy. The DNA laboratories were at the University of Surrey in England and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany.

Radiocarbon dating in Queen’s University Belfast revealed the teenager had died sometime between 1520 and 1670. Historian Dr. Ciarán Ó Murchadha has suggested that the most likely timeframe for the boy’s death is during the Commonwealth period (1649-1660), when Clare endured nearly two decades of famine, warfare, disease, and mass human casualty.

Director of the excavation, Dr. Marion Dowd of IT Sligo, commented: “This was a highly unusual situation: to find the remains of a malnourished boy in a small mountain cave in what was clearly not a Christian burial, yet he had died only a few hundred years ago. I was eager to get as many specialists as possible involved to try and extract more information about who he was and how he had died.”

Dr Marion Dowd
Dr Marion Dowd

Osteoarchaeologist Dr Catriona McKenzie at the University of Exeter discovered evidence on the skeleton of chronic infections and vitamin deficiencies. He had sinusitis, which would have been caused by a respiratory infection. The bones also revealed evidence of a poor diet with little meat but high in carbohydrates probably indicating the boy ate mostly bread and gruels. He had very poor dental hygiene.

Radiologist Dr Fran O’Keeffe examined x-rays of the leg bones and was able to determine that approximately once a year, every year, the boy suffered stresses that were so severe as to stop the skeleton from growing. When growth resumed, thin lines formed on the bones that could only be seen by x-ray. The type of stress he suffered is unclear, but it was probably a combination of starvation, nutritional deficiencies and poor health.

Dr Dowd added “All the evidence from the various specialists told us the same thing: this boy suffered periods of extreme hunger and malnourishment every year, probably for the entire duration of his short life. We do not know who he was, but there are a few details we can be pretty certain about. Isotopic analysis by Dr Thomas Kador at University College London indicated the boy was local to the Burren. We can imagine he was born and reared close to Ballyvaughan village. He would have been a Gaelic Irish speaker and probably did not speak English. He would have been Catholic, and almost certainly came from an impoverished family.”

Ancient DNA analysis indicated he belonged to haplogroup J, which accounts for 10.7% of the modern population of Ireland. Less is known about his particular sub-haplogroup, J2b1b1, but it indicates a European maternal ancestry for the boy.

How the teenager came to be in the cave is a mystery. Neither the archaeological excavations nor the subsequent scientific studies could determine the cause of death. This was not a Christian burial, however.

“We found the remains within a small rectangular niche in the wall of the cave. It was a small space, just about big enough for a teenager to crawl into. The position of the bones suggests the boy curled up in this small space and died there, alone in the cold. There is no evidence that this was a murder victim or a corpse that had been hastily disposed of in the cave. It seems likely, based on the present evidence that the boy was sheltering in the cave.

“He may have been crossing Moneen mountain; he may have been fleeing a battle or attack; or he may have been herding sheep in the uplands. Whatever the case, it seems he dropped through the narrow opening in the cave roof, crawled into the niche in the cave wall, and died there unbeknownst to his family or community. All in all, the excavation provided a very poignant insight into a life that was harsh and ended tragically for this boy in the not too distant past” said Dowd.

Her new book detailing the excavations and analyses has just been published by Archaeopress, Oxford: Archaeological excavations in Moneen Cave, the Burren, Co. Clare: insights into Bronze Age and post-medieval life in the west of Ireland. The book will be launched in Hylands Hotel, Ballyvaughan on Friday 9th December at 7pm.