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Saints and Sinners: religion and conflict in Medieval Ireland

Saints and Sinners: religion and conflict in Medieval Ireland

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Published by Brendon Wilkins
Religion, and religious strife, have defined modern Ireland. New archaeological evidence is showing that this cultural clash began long ago, with the very arrival of Christianity. In our final article on the top ten sites of Celtic Tiger archaeology, Brendon Wilkins looks at the physical evidence of this spiritual struggle.
Religion, and religious strife, have defined modern Ireland. New archaeological evidence is showing that this cultural clash began long ago, with the very arrival of Christianity. In our final article on the top ten sites of Celtic Tiger archaeology, Brendon Wilkins looks at the physical evidence of this spiritual struggle.

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Categories:Types, Research, History
Published by: Brendon Wilkins on Dec 08, 2010
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04/28/2013

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current archaeology
 
|
 
www.archaeology.co.uk
ireland
 
Medieval
 Juy
2011
 
|
28
Religion, and religious strife, have defined modern Ireland. New archaeologicalevidence is showing that this cultural clash began long ago, with the veryarrival of Christianity. In our final article on Celtic Tiger archaeology,
B Wk
looks at the physical evidence of this spiritual struggle.
religion and confict in Medieval Ireland 
Saints and
 Sinners
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www.archaeology.co.uk
 
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current archaeology
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Issue
250
29
in the small townland of Ray-stown, Co. Meath. The site,which endured for at least 600years as a large farming settle-ment, was excavated by CRDSLtd between 2004-2005. Exca-vations, led by Matthew Seaver,uncovered a burial ground andtwo areas of domestic activity;outside this core area were alarge number of boundaryand drainage ditches, cereal-drying kilns and the remainsof at least eight water-mills andwater-houses.The burial ground was centred on the top of aridge, with half of it falling within the plannedroad corridor. Excavations recovered 93 burials,with evidence, primarily disarticulated bonescattered through the soil, for a further 40 burialsthat had been disturbed by grave-digging andagriculture. The mostly shallow, unlined graveswere generally aligned with the skeleton’s head tothe west; some burials with a tightly-bound pos-ture indicated that the people had been buried inshrouds, while others contained objects such
H
istory,’ said Stephen Dedalusin James Joyce’s masterpiece
Ulysses
, ‘is a nightmare fromwhich I am trying to awake.’ Joyce was commenting on theviolence of Irish history, par-ticularly that done in the name of Christian faith.That history began at the dawn of the Christianera in Ireland, as a new ecclesiastical class com-mitted names, stories, and events to paper for thefirst time. But, as the new archaeological evidenceemerging from development-led excavations hasshown, they may have been the first to write his-tory - but they weren’t always the winners.Interchangeably known as the early Chris-tian period, Early Medieval Ireland was a highlysegmented society divided between approxi-mately 150 kings, who exercised power througha tribal structure. Tradition holds that Saint Pat-rick arrived in Ireland as a missionary in AD 432,although contemporary chronicles suggest thatthere were already Christians in Ireland at thistime, with Palladius ordained as their first bishopin AD 431 by Pope Celestine I.The advance of Christianity was accomplishedin two phases: an expansion period when thefaith was still a minority practice, and a consoli-dation period when Christianity bedded downas the dominant belief system. Missionaries hadtwo basic strategies to convert the Irish pagans.Their first option was to befriend wealthy fami-lies in the hope that they would grant land fora church, perhaps with one of their own kinappointed as abbot. A more effective strategywould be to convert a king, leading to the nom-inal conversion of his entire territory.Through this gradual process, the churchexpanded its reach throughout Irish society,and by AD 700 Ireland was, at least nominally,a Christian country. Monks, ecclesiastical ten-ants, and sections of the wider community wereencouraged to recognise their affiliation in deaththrough burial at ecclesiastical sites, though alarge cemetery site excavated on the N2 Finglas-Ashbourne road scheme indicates the supremacyof the Christian authorities was not yet abovechallenge.
Secrets from the grave
In the early 5th century, at approximately thesame time that the first Irish Christians wereseeking their first Bishop from Rome, peoplebegan burying their dead in an enclosed cemetery
left
Decorated lead panweight or gaming counter,found at Woodstown,Co. Waterford.CarrickminesRaystownWoodstown
 
BeloW
Unusual burial inthe remains of a kiln onthe edge of the Raystownenclosure.
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   C   R   D   S   L   t    d
Dublin
 
current archaeology
 
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www.archaeology.co.uk
ireland
 
Medieval
 Juy
2011
 
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unusual burial practice was also apparent, withone male inserted in a former drying kiln, somedistance from the other burials. Unlike the otherburials, he was covered with stones, in a north-south position, with legs flexed.
Land of the living
On either side of the cemetery were densely set-tled areas. To the north, an area paved with smallstones was discovered to be littered with animalbone, and artefacts such as bone and iron pins,needles, iron tools, and a horse bit. Post-holes sug-gest a house, and two
souterrains
were discoveredin this area. The first had a narrow passagewayleading to a rounded chamber; initially timber-built, the entrance was later replaced with stone.The second was stone-built with a corbelled roof and rectangular chamber. This northern areaand the cemetery were later enclosed by a large,rectangular enclosure, indicating that the peoplefelt the need to distinguish this area of the sitefrom the farming activity outside. To the southof the cemetery was a dense pattern of gullies,hearths and a probable house site.The land outside the settlement and cemeteryenclosures was dominated by features relating towork and production, such as field and livestockenclosures, kilns, and mills. Ditches, runningdown-slope, radiated outward from the coreenclosures, subdividing this area and formingdrains and boundaries. Five figure-of-eightas an iron knife, iron pin, copper-alloy ring, anda blue-glass bead found near a child’s neck. Thegraves were radiocarbon dated to between theearly 5th to the late 10th centuries.The burials comprised 68 adults, three adoles-cents, 20 juveniles and two older infants. Duringthis period, children frequently died before fouryears of age; at Raystown, the percentage of juve-niles and infants was very low, and there areno neonatal (birth to four weeks) burials, sug-gesting that they must have been buried else-where – perhaps in a
cillin
(a separate, designatedarea of non-consecrated ground for unbaptised,premature, and illegitimate offspring). Diseasewas a factor of everyday life, and many of theadult burials showed evidence of infections,such as tuberculosis. A number of the burials alsodemonstrate the violent nature of Early MedievalIrish life, with two males in particular showingcuts to the bone from a blade. Additional,
aBove
Excavation of two
souterrains 
(subterraneanstructures) in thenorthern area of theRaystown site.
aBove left
Aerial photograph of Raystown, withtopographical contours at 1m intervals (white lines) andgeophysical survey data (blue lines).
left
Plan of Raystown, showing geophysical survey dataand excavated remains.
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