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The Trinity Skeletons: The archaeological quest to find out who they were

Medieval human remains found in Dublin city centre have thrown up many questions for archaeologists.

Damian Shiels

THE RECENT DISCOVERY of human remains outside Trinity College Dublin was a cause of much excitement both for archaeologists and the general public. With the find we were provided a rare opportunity to glimpse Dublin’s medieval past in one of the modern capital’s most recognisable locations.

The Trinity skeletons were excavated by archaeologists from Rubicon Heritage Services Ltd, working on behalf of the Railway Procurement Agency. Although discoveries such as this propel archaeology into the limelight, they come around relatively infrequently. So, when not excavating medieval human remains in Dublin city centre, just what is it that us commercial archaeologists do?

We are relatively fortunate in Ireland that we have some of the strongest legislation for the protection of archaeological remains in Europe. What this means in practice is that all new development has to consider the archaeological impact of any proposed works on our shared heritage. Archaeology is a finite resource, which we need to manage carefully for the benefit of future generations. To that end, a lot of what we do is actually designed to help new developments avoid archaeology – although in places like major urban centres, this is not always possible.

The start of the process: assessments 

The archaeological process often starts with what are known as assessments. We carry out desk-based research to learn the history of an area and gauge how likely it is that archaeological remains might be present.

It can include looking at historical sources, aerial photographs and historical mapping to reconstruct the past uses of a site, but it will also examine the current landscape to see what that can tell us. Here we are on the look out for clues to help us assess the archaeology and unlock the past. For example, if we are looking at a seemingly inexplicable bend in a country road, we would consider if perhaps the road was avoiding something that is no longer visible above ground.

Rubicon osteoarchaeologists analysis a major assemblage of human remains from a cemetery at Ardreigh, near Athy on behalf of Kildare County Council

Osteoarchaeologists analyse a major assemblage of human remains. (Pic: Rubicon/Damian Sheils)

‘Non-invasive’ surveys

We also regularly carry out what we call ‘non-invasive’ surveys to assess archaeology, where no digging takes place. These usually take the form of geophysical surveys, using equipment which remotely reads the electric conductivity of the soil or its degree of magnetism – this can help to identify things such as buried walls, ditches or areas of burning.

Topographical surveys are also sometimes carried out; this involves the creation of a three-dimensional picture of the surface of the ground, achieved by taking a large number of survey points across it. This often identifies ‘lumps and bumps’ not visible to the naked eye, but which may be the remnants of past structures.

Full or partial excavation? 

As you can see a lot of what we do does not involve excavation, but for many developments archaeological excavation is unavoidable. The law in Ireland means that you need an archaeological excavation license issued by the State before you can carry out archaeological excavation. Even when we do start digging, it is rarely with the intent of carrying out immediate full excavation of a site. Sometimes we start by monitoring sub-surface works to see if any archaeology is present, while on other occasions we will first ‘test’ a site. This involves excavating trenches across a certain proportion of an area, normally around 12%, to see what archaeology might be present.

It is normally only after some or all of these stages that we find ourselves needing to carry out a full excavation. At Rubicon we have been fortunate to work on hundreds of sites across Ireland and the UK, finding evidence of everything from tools used by the island’s first Mesolithic hunter-gathers 9,000 years ago through to the everyday cooking utensils of our most recent 19th century ancestors.

 

A Rubicon archaeologist engaged in testing

An archaeologist engaged in testing. (Pic: Rubicon/Damian Sheils)

Preservation by record

When we excavate, our primary aim is to carefully record everything we find, a process known as ‘preservation by record’. All stages of an excavation are carefully planned, photographed and recorded. We look for changes in the soil to tell us about what was once there – are we inside a former house? Was there once a hearth here? Did past people throw away their rubbish on this spot? All finds are carefully numbered and recorded before being removed for analysis. Our work on site is only one part of the story. It is when we leave site and begin what we call post-excavation that archaeology really begins to give up its secrets.

We are fortunate today that we have a wide range of scientific and specialist techniques that we use to help us unlock the past. Fragments of pottery can tell us how old a site is and what type of activity took place there. Other finds can tell us about the type of people who lived at this location and their status in society. Analysis of animal bone informs us as what types of animals people were using, and what they were using them for. Soil samples give up information about the past environment, providing information on what crops people grew and what type of landscape they lived in.

Techniques such as radiocarbon dating allow us to determine the approximate age of organic remains, including human skeletons. Specialist analysis of groups of skeletons reveals details about past populations; what age they lived to, what diseases they suffered from, occasionally it even uncovers how they died.

The post-excavation stage of an archaeological project is often the longest process of all, as a range of different specialists contribute to bring the full story of a site together and reveal as much as possible about our ancestors’ lives. It is this stage that we are now entering with the excavation work undertaken outside Trinity – when hopefully we will discover just who these people were and why they were buried here.

Damian Shiels (@irishacw) is a Company Director with Rubicon Heritage Services Ltd (@rubiconheritage). You can visit their website at www.rubiconheritage.com 

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Damian Shiels

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