An aerial view of excavations at the medieval ringfort at Ranelagh near Roscommon Town.
Picture: Irish Archaeological Consultancy Ltd
The recent discovery outside Roscommon Town of a Medieval ringfort that included a jewellery workshop, evidence of extensive farming and a cemetery containing almost 800 bodies, has provided a window into our past. A year-long excavation of the site has provided a picture of the settlement that was probably occupied between the sixth and 11th centuries. It is thought that in its later years it may have served as an administrative and industrial hub for a community living in a series of ringforts in the surrounding area.
There was no evidence on any maps or in local folklore to suggest the existence of a ringfort and cemetery before the site was examined by archaeologists. The ringfort may have been levelled by centuries of ploughing for agriculture, or cleared during the landscaping of an area of parkland for the nearby Ranelagh House in the early 1700s. The main enclosure continued to be used for burials and appears to have been occupied during early Christianity period. A monastery was founded in Roscommon by St Comán in the early sixth century and had become quite important by the eighth century.
Reconstruction of a ringfort at Curraheen, Co Cork, the kind of enclosure that would have been first built at the ringfort in Ranelagh, Co Roscommon. Picture: Courtesy of Transport Infrastructure Ireland
Ringforts are Ireland’s most common field monument, with about 45,000 recorded examples. Recent archaeological evidence suggests that they may have fulfilled a variety of functions such as craftmanship and manufacture, as evidenced by the presence of furnaces. Archaeologists believe that all ringforts in a region were probably occupied at the same time. Should one ringfort be attacked, help would possibly come from a neighbouring one.
Our current understanding of these structures is that they date to the Early Medieval Period, with a peak in construction between AD 600 and AD 900. They represent the enclosed homesteads of the upper echelons of Irish Early Medieval society.
According to Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII) project archaeologist Martin Jones, overseeing the work as part of a road realignment on the N61, there were at least three other ringforts within 500 metres. It is thought that this ringfort was originally inhabited by a family that rose in prominence in the area. They may have then constructed a number of other ringforts around this one, which became a centre for industrial activity.
|Amber Necklace from Lough Gara, County Sligo|
dated from 800-700 BC
The amount of unfinished jewellery pieces found by the archaeologists indicates they were being made in a workshop at the site. The jewellery items found include amber and jet beads, a lignite bracelet, and a brooch panel with enamel stud. A fragment of a copper alloy bracelet has been dated by its decoration to around AD350 to 550. A necklace of amber beads and lignite bracelets were found during the excavation of crannog sites on Lough Gara, County Sligo.
The substantial number of bones found across the site point to a move from human settlement to raising and slaughtering animals. The discovery of a set of iron shears of different sizes indicates processing of animal wools.
The remains of 793 people were found of which three-quarters were intact. Archaeologists believe that several of the 470 juveniles and infants whose remains were unearthed may have been placed there during the later use of the site as a children’s burial ground. A small number of crouched burials were found, with their knees pushed up to their chest, which may suggest that these were non-locals being buried according to their own traditions. Other burials showed signs of punishment or disrespect, including at least two in which feet and hands may have been bound, one of them buried face down. Two of those buried at the Ranelagh excavation site were decapitated, and several children or adolescents were placed in the ground in embracing positions.
The custom of setting apart a special place for the burial of very young or unbaptised children was common practice from early medieval times until very recently. Many of these are situated in forts or early ecclesiastical sites.
In the fifth century AD, Augustine of Hippo declared that all unbaptised people were guilty of original sin. This prompted a debate in the Church which was to last for several centuries. From the sixth century, the burial of unbaptised individuals in consecrated ground was forbidden. In 2004, Pope John Paul 11 appointed a Commission to study Limbo and it reported its findings in 2007. The report, signed by Pope Benedict XV1, stated that it reflected a ‘restrictive view of salvation’ and that it was reasonable to hope that the souls of unbaptised infants are admitted to Heaven by a merciful God.
Although children’s burial grounds are normally associated with stillborn and unbaptised children, others were buried there including people who committed suicide, mentally disabled, the shipwrecked, criminals, famine victims, strangers and even women who had not been ‘churched’ after childbirth.
A notable feature in some of graves in the burial ground excavated was the placement of items with the body. The artefacts were frequently hidden under the hair and included beads, blades, a bracelet fragment, and copper and bone pins. This may have been a hangover from pre-Christian burial practices. One young adolescent was buried with a worked antler, one of a handful of such burials recorded in Ireland.
Scholars believe that the nature of the Celtic religion itself helped in the development of Christianity. For example, a belief in the indestructibility of the souls of the dead helped in understanding the resurrection of Christ.
Some non-Christian funerary customs continued to be practiced, including burial in cemeteries not obviously associated with a church. Burned grain, antler tine and pig bones have been found in pre-Christian graves signifying some form of rite. Christian cemeteries or ‘holy ground’, in which most of the population were buried, developed from the late seventh century onwards.
For further information about ringforts and childrens’ burial grounds see: