NMI Burial Excavation Records

County: Kildare Site name: HEMPSTOWN COMMONS, CO. KILDARE

Sites and Monuments Record No.: SMR KD020-016SMR KD020-015001 Licence number: E1082


Site type: Early Bronze Age graves

ITM: E 699567m, N 717850m

Latitude, Longitude (decimal degrees): 53.201750, -6.509693

In 1937 a short cist containing an inhumation was discovered in a sandpit at Hempstown Commons, Co. Kildare. The cist came to light after a sand slide during a thaw following a heavy snowfall in early April of that year. The site was visited by a large number of people, who disturbed the site and broke many of the bones. The landowner, Mr Laurence Behan, reported the find to the NMI. The site was investigated by Liam Price and Kevin Danaher. This report is based on Danaher’s summary of the excavation and plan of the cist.

Fig. 3.78—Location map, Hempstown Commons, Co. Kildare.

Location (Fig. 3.78)
The site was in the townland of Hempstown Commons, east Co. Kildare, close to the border with counties Wicklow and Dublin.120 It is also very close to the site of the discovery at Hartwell described above. It lay at an altitude of c. 200–250m above sea level, overlooking Poulaphouca Reservoir to the south-east. In 1949 an oval cist was excavated by P.J. Hartnett in the same townland, just one field to the north-east (Hartnett 1950).121 This burial was unusual in that the cist was constructed of two courses of masonry and covered by two capstones, one of which was decorated with rock art motifs. The cist contained a crouched inhumation of a male. The floor of the cist was partly paved. This skeleton has not been dated but is assumed to be early Bronze Age because of the decoration of the capstone. The grave described in this report is also assumed, in the absence of grave-goods, to be early Bronze Age, as the form of the cist is typical of the period.

Description of site
The grave was roughly rectangular in plan, with its long axis aligned north-east/south-west. Internally it measured 1.06m long by 0.44m wide by 0.61m deep (Fig. 3.79).122 Three of the sides consisted of a single edge-set stone slab and the fourth was formed of some drystone walling covered by one large flat slab.123 The original report states that the south-western end slab had been displaced by the sand slide, but the rest of the slabs were in position when the cist was examined.124 There is no evidence to suggest the presence of packing stones around the cist. The cist was covered by a large subrectangular capstone measuring 1.34m long by 1.02m wide.125 It is probable that the pit dug to receive the cist was destroyed in the sand slide but, in any case, it can be difficult to identify evidence for the cutting of a pit in sand.
The grave contained the crouched skeleton of an adult female (1937:2746), which may have been accompanied by a ceramic vessel and small pieces of chert and ‘ochreous pebbles’.126 Apparently the bones of a small animal were also found, although these have not yet been identified.127 The bones were in a poor state of preservation but it was possible to tell that the skeleton lay on its right side. The bones remaining in the cist included the right ulna and radius, right scapula, some vertebrae, portions of the pelvis and right femur, and some finger and toe bones.

Fig. 3.79—Plan of grave, Hempstown Commons, Co. Kildare.

The human remains from this site have not been dated. In the absence of pottery or any other associated finds it is not possible to suggest a date, but the form of the cist is similar to other early Bronze Age structures and the discovery in 1949 of the cist with a decorated capstone is indicative of burial activity in the area.


Description of grave
The bones (1937:2746) were in a poor state of preservation, but apparently the skeleton had been lying on its right side in a crouched position. No skull, ribs or pelvis remained. Only one lumbar vertebra, possibly the first or second, survived from the vertebral column. Both scapulae were present and were virtually complete. The proximal half of the right humerus shaft and the proximal half of the right ulna were present. Only the head and neck of the right femur and part of the distal shaft of the left femur remained from the leg bones.

Age and sex
As no skull or pelvis remained, the only way of determining sex was by metrical analysis. The diameter of the head of the femur (40.1mm) and the breadth of the glenoid fossae (24.9mm; 23.2mm), were all well within the female range.
There were no features remaining to enable an estimation of age. As there was only one
vertebra present, the presence of mild osteophytes cannot help to determine age. Osteophytosis can develop in the vertebrae from as early as the mid-twenties, but it can develop sooner owing to trauma. The degree of osteophytosis in one vertebra can be misleading, as it may be severe or absent in other vertebrae throughout the vertebral column.
Therefore it can only be stated that this was the burial of an adult female.

Skeletal pathology
Mild osteophytes were noted on the superior edge of the lumbar vertebral body and a Schmorl’s node was also present on the superior surface.

There were no teeth remaining from this burial.

Summary and conclusions
This burial was of an adult female. Since the burial had been lying on its right side, most of the bones recovered were from this side. Some osteophytosis, caused by strain on the vertebral column, was found on one lumbar vertebra, but since this was the only vertebra recovered it is not possible to say how advanced this condition was throughout the vertebral column. A Schmorl’s node, evidence of a herniation of the intervertebral disc, was also present on this vertebra and suggests that heavy labour was carried out by this individual.

120. Parish of Rathmore, barony of Naas north. SMR KD020-016——. IGR 299638 217820.
121. SMR KD020-015001-. IGR 29992 21792.
122. These measurements differ slightly from those in the report, as the latter are not the maximum internal dimensions of the cist.
123. Although the orientation of the cist was noted, a north arrow does not appear on the plan, so it is only possible to describe the position of the cist slabs and contents in relation to each other.
124. It is not possible to tell which is the south-western end slab as both end slabs are depicted in their ‘original position’ on the plan.
125. The thickness of the capstone is not given.
126. The fragment of pottery was lost and the pebbles were thought by Danaher and Price to be entirely natural, and therefore were not retained. It is possible that they were deliberately placed in the grave, as was the case in the second burial at Hempstown Commons (Hartnett 1950) and at Corballis, Co. Dublin (Vol. 2, pp 324–5).
127. These appear to have been registered with the human skeletal remains as 1937:2746.