Monday, July 24, 2017

The Moneen Cave Skeleton: the harsh reality of 17th Century Ireland

The Burren, Co Clare
Archaeology has the remarkable ability to bring us face to face with the past. During the initial exploration of Moneen Cave, outside Ballyvaughan village in the Burren, Co. Clare, by cavers in June 2011, a human skull was found in the chamber. Subsequent archaeological excavations led to the recovery of further cranial fragments at the same location. The excavation of the site also revealed an artificial rectangular niche and a disturbed human skeleton - minus the skull. Moneen Cave lies close to the summit of Moneen Mountain at an altitude of 166m.
The discovery of the Moneen skeleton brings into sharp focus the hardships endured by many, including children, in the not too distant past. The small size of the skeleton led archaeologists to think it was of a young child. Analysis of the teeth, however, revealed that the remains belonged to someone who had died aged 14 to 16 years old. DNA analysis confirmed the individual was a teenage boy. Investigations of the skeleton revealed incredible details about the boy’s life.
Researchers found evidence of stunted growth, almost certainly a result of malnutrition and hunger. The adolescent measured 4 ft. 1 inch in height which is the equivalent of an average 8-year-old child by modern standards. Scientists discovered evidence on the skeleton of chronic infections and vitamin deficiencies. The bones also revealed evidence of a poor diet with little meat but high in carbohydrates.
Radiocarbon dating in Queen’s University Belfast revealed the teenager had died sometime between 1520 and 1670. There was no evidence to suggest that this individual suffered a violent death. 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.  
Poulnabrone Dolmen, Co Clare
Dr Marion Dowd, IT Sligo, who investigated the Moneen Cave discovery, states:
“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 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.”
How the teenager came to be in the cave is a mystery. According to Dr Dowd:
“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.”
We can only speculate about the boy’s final hours.
“Perhaps he was seeking refuge - this was a time of religious persecution and political instability - or he may have been ill, or both.” she added.
The earliest object found during excavations in Moneen Cave was a broken flint flake of late Mesolithic or Neolithic date. Archaeologists also discovered a Bronze Age antler hammerhead and over 345 sherds of pottery, analysis of which indicated the presence of at least six different undecorated vessels dated to c. 1100-1000 BC.
It is thought that the material from Moneen Cave may represent votive deposits placed in the cave as some form of religious act. The cave may have been regarded as a sacred place in the landscape. It would appear that Moneen Cave was never occupied as no evidence of habitation, hearths or domestic debris was found and the chamber was extremely small and cramped.
"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 Dr Dowd.

Whilst we may be shocked by the harsh conditions suffered by a young boy in Co Clare in the mid-1600s, we should not forget that about 795 million people, or one in nine of the World population, suffered chronic undernourishment in 2014-2016 (Food and Agriculture Organisation, The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2015). Almost all the hungry people (780 million), live in developing countries whilst there are 11 million people undernourished in developed countries. 

For more information please see:

Marion Dowd (2013) About a boy: excavations at Moneen Cave in the Burren. Archaeology Ireland,                   Vol. 27, No. 1 (Spring 2013), pp. 9-12 Published by: Wordwell Ltd. 

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