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The origins of the Irish Cillin: the segregation of infant burials within an early medieval enclosure at Carrowkeel, Co. Galway.

The origins of the Irish Cillin: the segregation of infant burials within an early medieval enclosure at Carrowkeel, Co. Galway.

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Published by Brendon Wilkins
Paper presented to TAG, Columbia University, 2008.

In later and post medieval Ireland, unbaptised children were rarely buried in consecrated ground. Strangers, suicides, or unrepentant murderers were also treated differently in death, interred in Cillin cemeteries - liminal, clandestine places associated with boundaries in the landscape, and often sited within early medieval settlement enclosures that had long since fallen out of use. The origin of this practice is often assumed to be associated with the adoption of Christianity, and the Limbus Infantus of the medieval church. Baptism was the necessary threshold through which all must pass before entering Christian society, and without which incorporation into the society of the dead was impossible. This paper assesses the origins of this practice drawing on a recently excavated early medieval settlement cemetery at Carrowkeel, Co. Galway. The cemetery was in use for over 700 years, and the spatial segregation of children can be recognised in the early phases of the site. Was this segregation a precursor to the later medieval practice of Cillin burial? Did the adoption of Christianity elaborate the pre-existing boundaries of an early medieval society obsessed with status in life and its continuity into death? To understand how these nuanced conceptual and physical boundaries worked in the past, this paper begins by addressing the boundaries that divide our discipline in the present.
Paper presented to TAG, Columbia University, 2008.

In later and post medieval Ireland, unbaptised children were rarely buried in consecrated ground. Strangers, suicides, or unrepentant murderers were also treated differently in death, interred in Cillin cemeteries - liminal, clandestine places associated with boundaries in the landscape, and often sited within early medieval settlement enclosures that had long since fallen out of use. The origin of this practice is often assumed to be associated with the adoption of Christianity, and the Limbus Infantus of the medieval church. Baptism was the necessary threshold through which all must pass before entering Christian society, and without which incorporation into the society of the dead was impossible. This paper assesses the origins of this practice drawing on a recently excavated early medieval settlement cemetery at Carrowkeel, Co. Galway. The cemetery was in use for over 700 years, and the spatial segregation of children can be recognised in the early phases of the site. Was this segregation a precursor to the later medieval practice of Cillin burial? Did the adoption of Christianity elaborate the pre-existing boundaries of an early medieval society obsessed with status in life and its continuity into death? To understand how these nuanced conceptual and physical boundaries worked in the past, this paper begins by addressing the boundaries that divide our discipline in the present.

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categoriesTypes, Research, Science
Published by: Brendon Wilkins on Aug 17, 2009
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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10/17/2012

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1
The
 
origins
 
of 
 
the
 
Irish
 
Cillin:
 
the
 
segregation
 
of 
 
infant 
 
burials
 
within
 
an
 
early
 
medieval
 
enclosure
 
at 
 
Carrowkeel,
 
Co.
 
Galway.
 
Brendon
 
Wilkins,
 
Ireland.
 
Paper
 
presented
 
to
 
TAG,
 
Columbia
 
University,
 
2008.
 
In
 
later 
 
and 
 
 post 
 
medieval 
 
Ireland,
 
unbaptised 
 
children
 
were
 
rarely 
 
buried 
 
in
 
consecrated 
 
 ground.
 
Strangers,
 
suicides,
 
or 
 
unrepentant 
 
murderers
 
were
 
also
 
treated 
 
differently 
 
in
 
death,
 
interred 
 
in
 
Cillin
 
cemeteries
-
liminal,
 
clandestine
 
 places
 
associated 
 
with
 
boundaries
 
in
 
the
 
landscape,
 
and 
 
often
 
sited 
 
within
 
early 
 
medieval 
 
settlement 
 
enclosures
 
that 
 
had 
 
long
 
since
 
 fallen
 
out 
 
of 
 
use.
 
The
 
origin
 
of 
 
this
 
 practice
 
is
 
often
 
assumed 
 
to
 
be
 
associated 
 
with
 
the
 
adoption
 
of 
 
Christianity,
 
and 
 
the
 
LimbusInfantus
 
of 
 
the
 
medieval 
 
church.
 
Baptism
 
was
 
the
 
necessary 
 
threshold 
 
through
 
which
 
all 
 
must 
 
 pass
 
before
 
entering
 
Christian
 
society,
 
and 
 
without 
 
which
 
incorporation
 
into
 
the
 
society 
 
of 
 
the
 
dead 
 
was
 
impossible.
 
This
 
 paper 
 
assesses
 
the
 
origins
 
of 
 
this
 
 practice
 
drawing
 
on
 
a
 
recently 
 
excavated 
 
early 
 
medieval 
 
settlement 
 
cemetery 
 
at 
 
Carrowkeel,
 
Co.
 
Galway.
 
The
 
cemetery 
 
was
 
in
 
use
 
 for 
 
over 
 
700
 
 years,
 
and 
 
the
 
spatial 
 
segregation
 
of 
 
children
 
can
 
be
 
recognised 
 
in
 
the
 
early 
 
 phases
 
of 
 
the
 
site.
 
Was
 
this
 
segregation
 
a
 
 precursor 
 
to
 
the
 
later 
 
medieval 
 
 practice
 
of 
 
Cillin
 
burial? 
 
Did 
 
the
 
adoption
 
of 
 
Christianity 
 
elaborate
 
the
 
 pre
-
existing
 
boundaries
 
of 
 
an
 
early 
 
medieval 
 
society 
 
obsessed 
 
with
 
status
 
in
 
life
 
and 
 
its
 
continuity 
 
into
 
death? 
 
To
 
understand 
 
how 
 
these
 
nuanced 
 
conceptual 
 
and 
 
 physical 
 
boundaries
 
worked 
 
in
 
the
 
 past,
 
this
 
 paper 
 
begins
 
by 
 
addressing
 
the
 
boundaries
 
that 
 
divide
 
our 
 
discipline
 
in
 
the
 
 present.
 
1.
 
T
HE
 
S
ITE
 
Carrowkeel in County Galway resonates with the spatial and bodily boundariesaddressed by this morning’s session. Carrowkeel was a multi‐period enclosureexcavated on behalf of Galway County Council in advance of the N6 Galway toBallinasloe road scheme in the Republic of Ireland (Slide 1).
 
The main phase was a substantial early medieval enclosure ditchrepresented by a large V‐shaped ditch that measured 65 m east by 47 mwest.
 
 
About a third of the enclosure remained beyond the limit of excavation, andin this area the remnants of a substantial internal bank were preservedbeneath a 19th century dry stone field boundary.
 
 
It contained a cemetery in the south‐east corner with 132 predominantlysupine east‐west burials.
 
 
 
2
 
And the population comprised a disproportionate percentage of non‐adults,infant and foetal remains.
 
These infant and foetal remains were topsoil burials barely buried beneath thesurface, and looking back over my field notes, we were labouring under an illusion.During the excavation we assumed, I think quite reasonably given the lack of cleargrave cuts, that there were three phases of cemetery use (Slide 2).
 
A primary phase represented by a crouched inhumation found in theterminus of a ditch.
 
A secondary phase of supine west‐east orientated burials, probablyrepresenting the use of the site as an early Christian enclosure;
 
And a final phase of exclusively children that belonged to a
Cillin
Phase of thesite.
 
In later medieval Ireland right up into the mid 1960s, un‐baptised children were not permitted to be buried in consecrated ground, but interred in
Cillin
cemeteries ‐liminal, clandestine places often associated with physical and conceptual boundariesin the landscape. To borrow a phrase I’ve heard once or twice myself, if you’renames not down, you’re not getting in.In fact we now think it was neither of those things. We took 40 radiocarbon datesfrom the cemetery and they turned the original phasing on its head. The cemeterywas in use from the 7
th
to the 15
th
century, and far from being a later post medievalphase of activity, the spatial segregation of children can actually be recognised in theearly phases of the site, much earlier than the mainstream opinion for the
Cillin
 burial.This led us to question: Perhaps infant segregation in the early medieval period at Carrowkeel was a precursor to the more general, historically documented latermedieval practice of 
Cillin
burial? Perhaps the adoption of Christianity elaboratedthe pre‐existing boundaries of an early medieval society obsessed with maintainingstatus divisions in life and their continuity into death? Or perhaps this was neither a
Cillin
nor an ecclesiastical enclosure, but something else that defied easyclassification.I’ll address these issues shortly but now let’s have a look at the evidence, beforeassessing how current thinking on boundaries connects with this particular site.
2.
 
T
HE
 
FIELD
 
EVIDENCE
 
Carrowkeel was situated on the western brow of an east/west ridge of higherground overlooking a known area of early medieval settlement, consisting of cashels, a souterrain, house sites and a field system approximately 150 metres away
 
 
3
(Slide 3 & 4). The enclosure had been identified on the first edition OS map dated to1838, though not on subsequent map surveys, indicating that it had been ploughedaway or levelled during agricultural improvement in the 19th century. A geophysicalsurvey prior to test trenching identified a series of anomalies interpreted aspotential ditches, and this turned out to be multiperiod enclosure and cemetery sitewith the main phase dating to the early medieval period.There were three main sub‐phases recognised in the ditch and bank sections. Theseincluded:
 
A construction phase, when a substantial 1.5 m deep V‐shaped ditch wascut, and up‐cast material deposited as an internal bank.
 
Followed by a use phase, when bank material initially slumped back intothe ditch quite quickly, but then stabilised with a vegetation layer.
 
And a final phase when the ditch was deliberately backfilled with largestones and boulders, probably as a result of field clearance.The cemetery contained 132 individuals, and it was located in the south‐east cornerof the enclosure, partly enclosed by an internal double‐ditch. As the incidence of burials increased toward the edge of the site, the cemetery could have continuedbeyond the limit of excavation towards the brow of the hill. In symmetry with thechanging phasing defined for the main enclosure ditch, four sub‐phases wereidentified in the cemetery area.The phase I assemblage comprised 37 individuals, and coincides with the dating forthe construction of the enclosure, and during this phase this part of the burial areawas used for organised disposal of predominantly women and children. Breakingdown as such, 70% of these individuals were non‐adults.The second Phase of the cemetery dates from the mid 9
th
to the 11
th
century, andcontained 75 individuals, and 93% of these were non‐adult. This relates to what wecalled the ‘use’ phase of the enclosure, when erosion of the main ditch stabilised,and the cemetery contained the largest proportion of very young children.Beyond this point, the organisation within this part of the cemetery breaks down,and this mirrors the final sub‐phase of the enclosure and gradual backfilling of theditch with field clearance debris.In cemetery Phase III there are 18 individuals, and a much more even spread of agecategories than was recognised in earlier phases, although non‐adults accounted for78% of this phase.And only two individuals were attributed to cemetery Phase IV, dated to the 15
th
 century, indicating that the cemetery was in the process of abandonment.

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