NMI Burial Excavation Records

County: Mayo Site name: GORTMELLIA, CO. MAYO

Sites and Monuments Record No.: SMR MA011-0210001 and MA011-021002 Licence number: E1124

Author: C.G. SEAVERS

Site type: Early Bronze Age graves

ITM: E 478388m, N 833711m

Latitude, Longitude (decimal degrees): 54.237801, -9.865620

In late September 1936 a short cist containing a cremation was discovered during quarrying operations near Belmullet, Co. Mayo. The capstone of the cist was discovered some 0.36m below ground level by workers at the site. The discovery was reported to the Garda Síochána at Glenamoy, who informed the NMI, and the area was left intact pending a proper investigation. On 3 October the site was investigated by Sergeant C.G. Seavers of Westport, who undertook many fieldwork tasks in this area on behalf of the NMI.216 This report is based on Seavers’s account of the site.

The site was in the townland of Gortmellia, north-west Co. Mayo.217 According to Seavers, it was located ‘on top of a hill’ but the exact location is not known, as the Ordnance Survey coordinates were not given. The SMR lists a burial mound and a cist,218 but unfortunately it is not possible to say whether these sites are associated with the cist discussed here.

Description of site
The cist was slightly wedge-shaped in plan, with its long axis aligned north-west/south-east. Internally, it measured 0.56m long by 0.38m wide by 0.39m high.219 The chamber was formed of four side slabs set on edge, one forming each wall (Pl. 48). These slabs appear to have been relatively regular in shape, being quite thin and having flat inner surfaces. The photographs of the cist prior to excavation show a mound of large stones covering the capstone, and some of these may have acted as packing stones to support the cist walls externally.220 The main capstone of the cist (i.e. that which rested directly on the side slabs) was, according to Seavers’s sketch, rectilinear in plan and, as previously mentioned, underlay a number of larger stones, including a ‘transparent’ (sic) quartz stone at the centre.221 The floor of the cist was paved with a number of flags, which were irregular in shape but neatly fitted together. The central paving flag was also described as ‘transparent’ quartz and, according to Seavers, lay directly beneath the white quartz stone that had been placed on top of the tumulus. The pit dug to receive the cist does not appear to have been located.
The grave contained the cremated remains of two adults, one of whom was female, and a juvenile (1936:3690). There were no accompanying artefacts. The cremation had been placed on the floor in the centre of the cist. Seavers mentions finding ‘a couple of small pieces of what appeared to be baked yellow clay’, but these were apparently not forwarded to the Museum.

The human remains from this site have not been dated. In the absence of any associated finds, it is assumed to be early Bronze Age in date based on its form.


Sample 1936:3690 consisted of 5,832 fragments of cremated bone, weighing a total of 1,651g. The bone was basically a white colour and was efficiently cremated, with horizontal fissuring of the bone surface. The fragmentation of the sample is shown in Table 3.59, with the largest fragment measuring 71mm.

Table 3.59—Fragmentation of bone, 1936:3690.

It can be seen that there is only a relatively small proportion of very large fragments and that only half the sample is made up of large fragments more than 15mm in length. A significant quantity of this cremation consists of small fragments, which made identification difficult.
As there was a higher proportion of smaller fragments, a relatively low percentage of bone could be identified. A total of 587g (36% of the total bone) was identified. This is very low for an early Bronze Age cremation. The amount and proportion of the identified bone are shown in Table 3.60.

Table 3.60—Proportion of identified bone, 1936:3690.

Table 3.61 presents a summary of the main parts of the skeleton identified. It can be seen that the proportion of skull is more than twice what was expected and that the proportion of all other parts of the skeleton is lower than expected.

Table 3.61—Summary of identified bone, 1936:3690.

Identifiable bone

Part of the squamous part of the frontal bone and the left orbit from a female were present. There were several fragments of parietal bone, 6.5mm thick. The left anterior part of the temporal bone with the mandibular fossa was present, and there was one mastoid area of temporal bone. A left and a right petrous temporal bone were also present. There was a fragment of the squamous occipital bone, and fragments of the right zygomatic bone and right greater wing of sphenoid were present. There were three other petrous temporal bones, one from an adult and two from a juvenile. Other juvenile skull fragments included a fragment of right orbit, a fragment of frontal with crista frontalis present, the body of sphenoid, the anterior part of the right temporal bone and the squamous part of the occipital bone.

Mandible and maxilla
Part of a left ramus, a right ramus and two mandibular condyles were present. There were the anterior parts of the body of two mandibular bodies. The left and the right side of a maxilla were also present, as well as several tooth fragments.

Sockets for the following teeth were observable:

The roots of eighteen teeth were present, including two upper and two lower third molars, two other lower molars, five incisors and premolars. A fragment of the anterior part of a juvenile mandible was present, with sockets for unerupted teeth visible. The roots of three deciduous incisors and the partially formed crowns of two upper and one lower molars were present. A premolar with a quarter-formed crown was present and there was part of the crown of one adult incisor, which may have been just erupting. A juvenile with this state of dental development would be aged 4–7 years and probably 4–5 years.

The left and right side and the dens articular area of a first cervical vertebra, the right side of a second cervical vertebra, four bodies of lower cervical vertebrae and fragments of five arches remained. There were also one body and fragments of four arches from the thoracic vertebrae, and at least two incomplete lumbar bodies and some articular surfaces. There was at least one juvenile thoracic body and possibly two juvenile thoracic arches.

There were several fragments of shaft and two right tubercles from adult ribs. At least seven juvenile ribs were present.

There were several fragments of ilium, including fragments of acetabulum, and there was one right ischium and a fragment of the sacrum.

The lateral thirds of two left clavicles and the shaft of one other were present.

Fragments of a left and a right glenoid were present, and there were two acromial spines from an adult and the base of an acromion from a juvenile.

The distal third of a left and the distal third of the shaft of a right humerus were present. There were also fragments from the proximal shaft and the left and right distal articular surfaces.

There were fragments from the proximal, middle and distal parts of the shaft and one fragment of fused proximal articular surface.

This consisted of shaft fragments, including a large fragment from the middle of the shaft of the left bone and fragments from the proximal end of the shaft of a left bone from just below the olecranon, as well as the tip of the olecranon from a left bone. There was also a fragment from the right proximal end of the shaft. There were other fragments from the distal shaft.

Carpals, metacarpals, phalanges
The right lunate, capitate and trapezoid were present, as well as nine metacarpal shafts, including a first, second, right third and fifth, as well as nine proximal, six middle and five distal phalanges. There were also seven proximal, five middle and three distal phalanges from a juvenile.

The proximal epiphysis of a small juvenile was present, and there were two proximal third and neck of shafts from a left and a right juvenile femur. There were also fragments of adult shaft, some with the linea aspera visible. Fragments from the distal end of an adult and a juvenile bone were present.

Several large fragments of shaft from an adult bone were present, including the posterior shaft near the proximal end with the nutrient foramen visible. There were fragments from the anterior surface of the bone, including the tubercles from the left and the right bone. The proximal articular surface of a juvenile and part of a distal articular surface were present.

Fragments of shaft only survived.

Pl. 33—Sketch by William Monks of slabs from cist found at Coolraheen North, Co. Kilkenny, May 1949.

Pl. 34—Report of discovery of grave at Haywood Demesne, Co. Laois, March 1956.

Pl. 35—Article from The Irish Press dated 14 May 1941, reporting the discovery of the grave at Ballinlyna Upper, Co. Limerick.

Pl. 36—Urn burial during excavation, Glenlary, Co. Limerick, June 1995.

Pl. 37—Collared urn (restored), Glenlary, Co. Limerick.

Pl. 38——Sketch of grave 2, Ballinchalla, Co. Mayo, by Sergeant C.G. Seavers, November/December 1933.

Pl. 39——Excavation of compartmented cist, probably grave 2, Ballinchalla, Co. Mayo, 1933. Pictured are Sergeant C.G. Seavers and the landowner, Mr Michael O’Connor.

Pl. 40———Excavation of compartmented cist, probably grave 2, Ballinchalla, Co. Mayo, 1933. Pictured is the landowner, Mr Michael O’Connor; the second individual is unidentified.

Pl. 41———Sergeant C.G. Seavers and Mr Michael O’Connor, Ballinchalla, Co. Mayo.

Pl. 42———Sketch of grave 3, Ballinchalla, Co. Mayo, by Robert Gibbings, 1950.

Pl. 43——Landowner Mr Michael O’Connor beside grave 9, Ballinchalla, Co. Mayo, 1944.

Pl. 44——View of grave 9, Ballinchalla, Co. Mayo, showing cobblestone paving, 1944.

Pl. 45——Bipartite vase and lid from grave 4, Ballinchalla, Co. Mayo.

Pl. 46——Photograph of young boys, Con O’Leary and Patrick Sullivan (one boy unidentified), standing next to the cist they found at Carrickanass, Co. Mayo, probably taken in June 1937.

Pl. 47——Letter to the National Museum dated 18 June 1937, signed by Con O’Leary and Patrick Sullivan, reporting the discovery of the cist at Carrickanass, Co. Mayo.

Pl. 48——View of cist at Gortmellia, Co. Mayo, October 1936.

The superior half of a right patella and the anterior surface of another patella were present.

Tarsal, metatarsals, phalanges
Fragments of one talus, one navicular and one cuboid were present, as well as a fifth metatarsal shaft, the head of a first metatarsal, two proximal and one middle foot phalanges and one sesamoid bone. Three juvenile foot phalanges were also present.

Minimum number of individuals
There appeared to be two adults and one juvenile aged 4–7 years present in this sample. One of the adults was female.

Summary and conclusions
This sample consisted of 1,651g of efficiently cremated bone. The bone appeared to be highly crushed and nearly half the sample consisted of small fragments. As the cist appears to have been left intact when found, the crushing could have occurred as part of the cremation process. On the other hand, as there was a juvenile present it is not unexpected that there would be a large proportion of small fragments. Owing to the small fragment size, only 36% of the sample could be identified. All parts of the skeleton were present, but the proportion of skull was almost twice what it should be and there was a lower proportion than expected of other parts of the skeleton. From experience with other Bronze Age cremations, it is generally found that a high proportion of skull indicates that more than one individual was present. In fact, a minimum of three individuals, two adults and a juvenile aged 4–7 years, were present. One of the adults was a female; the sex of the other is unknown. No pathology
was noted on the remains.

216. See Ballinchalla, Co. Mayo (this volume, pp 290–303).
217. Parish of Kilcommon, barony of Erris. OS 6in. sheets 10 or 11, exact location not marked.
218. SMR MA011-0210001 and MA011-021002. IGR 47940 834523.
219. Measurements taken from Seavers’s annotated sketch.
220. See Pl. 48, where some stones are visible around the outer walls of the cist. Owing to the nature of the site, small stones are visible all around the quarry area, and the location of the former may be fortuitous.
221. The measurements of the capstone were not recorded.