NMI Burial Excavation Records

County: Dublin Site name: MOUNT OFFALY, CABINTEELY

Sites and Monuments Record No.: SMR 26:119 Licence number: 98E0035

Author: Malachy Conway, Margaret Gowen & Co. Ltd, 2 Killiney View, Albert Road Lower, Glenageary, Co. Dublin.

Site type: Early medieval enclosed cemetery

ITM: E 723224m, N 724228m

Latitude, Longitude (decimal degrees): 53.254091, -6.153310

The site, known locally as Mount Offaly, lies along the Dublin-bound carriageway of the N11, some 700m south-west of Cabinteely village. The topographic files of the National Museum of Ireland contain numerous references to the discovery of human remains from both the Mount Offaly site and adjacent properties. Two previous rescue excavations, at locations to the north and north-west of the site, recovered extended inhumations. The first was in 1957 when the NMI excavated a long cist containing an adult male inhumation with some additional female bones, and the second was by Raghnall Ó Floinn in 1991 when an unprotected inhumation was recovered from the root ball of a tree (Excavations 1991, 17). A pre-development assessment undertaken by Margaret Gowen in 1995 revealed at least fourteen in situ burials of early medieval date, as well as a sherd of Leinster cooking ware (Excavations 1995, 27-8).

The excavation of the site in advance of the construction of an Esso service station was undertaken from February to August 1998. This revealed a complex sequence of burial beginning at least in around the 5th or 6th century, culminating sometime in around the 11th or 12th century. At least 1553 individual burials were uncovered, along with numerous deposits of disarticulated remains and two charnel pits. Six broad phases of burial are at present proposed for the cemetery.

Phase 1 burial consists of at least twenty individuals, seven of which had associated grave-cuts, and two of which were in wood-lined (elm) graves . All Phase 1 burials were cut directly into the subsoil surface (sand to the south and gravel to the north of the site). In general these burials were well spaced and with clearly defined grave-cuts.

As the exact date of the Phase 1 burials has yet to be established it is unclear whether the cutting of the first enclosure ditch on the site took place before or after these burials. What is certain is that the inner ditch was filled in to facilitate the extension of the cemetery during Phase 3.

Phase 2 burial comprised at least 48 individuals, of which only three had surviving grave-cuts, while a fourth burial was contained within a grave comprising stone features. Phase 2 was also accompanied by a stone-lined socket, which may represent the position of a cemetery marker or grave alignment stone.

Phase 3 saw the filling in of the inner ditch and the excavation of a new enclosure ditch between 4.5m and 2m to the east. At least 120 individuals, of which five were interred in lintel graves and one in a stone-lined grave, represent this phase. The remaining burials were in earth-cut graves, and within this group four were accompanied by ear-muff stones and one had a stone component in the grave.

Phase 4 burial comprises at least 262 individuals and represents a marked increase in both the number of burials and the size of the area utilised within the enclosure. Several areas are, however, burial free, and these correspond with areas of stone cobble. Four of the lintel graves of Phase 3 were reopened and used for secondary burial. Eleven burials were found utilising ear-muff stones, and a further three had a stone feature or component to their interment.

Phase 5 represents another marked development in both the number of interments and the size of the enclosure. The middle ditch was filled in, and a third and final ditch was excavated 8.5m to the east of the former. At least 424 burials are represented for this phase, and of this number 33 burials had ear-muff stones and four had a small stone box or cist around the head. Only one of the head-cist burials contained a pillow stone (a large, flat, quartz pebble). As with the preceding phases, few clearly defined grave-cuts survived (only eleven). A unique stone-lined charnel pit was uncovered, containing the remains of three individuals. The base of the charnel pit comprised an intact millstone.Features within this phase included several areas of cobbles from which two bronze rings were recovered and, from the middle ditch, a furnace with associated hearth and dump deposits of metalworking debris, as well as a significant deposit of butchered animal bone, domestic waste and small finds.

Phase 6, the final phase, is characterised by the filling in of the outer ditch and the formation of a large cobbled surface, partly overlying the inner edge of the outer ditch. Test excavation immediately south of the surviving cobble failed to reveal any further continuation of the feature. However, as most of the archaeological deposits and burials from this area had been disturbed and/or removed during construction of the original garage in the 1930s, it is reasonable to assume that the cobble surface extended south. It is clear that the cobble forms a perimeter to the burial area; however, the reason for the filling in of the outer ditch and the utilisation of a cobbled area as the cemetery boundary is unclear.

Phase 6 consists of at least 450 burials of which over half are infants. Within Phase 6 sixteen grave-cuts survived, and of the total number of burials 57 have associated ear-muff stones and two have head cists. It may be possible to subdivide Phases 3 to 6 further. If successful, this may provide evidence that the site was used primarily as a kileen during its final phase.Burials of Phases 1-2 and 4-6 were exclusively in earth-cut graves, which in many cases were not clearly visible owing to the numerous recuts and disturbance caused by successive interment. Many of the burials in earth-cut graves from Phase 3 through to Phase 6 had stones surrounding the head (ear-muff stones) or had the head surrounded by a stone setting resembling a head cist. In only one instance was a pillow stone used. Burial posture suggests that most of the interments were shrouded, and at least three large shroud-pins were recovered (although only one was directly associated with a burial).

Generally the burials were laid in the extended supine position with the head to the west; however, a number were aligned with the head to either the north or the east, and this group also included several prone burials and at least one crouched (cut into the middle ditch fill). Two female burials contained full-term foetuses, one of which was in the breach birth position. Other unusual burials include an adult male from Phase 3 with body in an extended supine position but with the skull turned around to quite literally face west.

At the time of writing, post-excavation analysis is ongoing, and so the results of the skeletal analysis to date have not been included in this summary. However, during excavation pathologies were noted when obvious, and these included a number of fractures, some showing signs of healing, dental and bone abscesses and compression fractures of the vertebrae. During post-excavation analysis a number of interesting features have become known, including at least one case of trepanation. A number of weapon injuries have been noted, in the case of one individual the nature of the attack can be illustrated. A diagonal ‘sword’ cut to his back extends from the upper vertebrae downwards and across the back of the left ribs. A fracture to the left arm was most probably incurred when the individual held it up to protect himself from a further blow, from either the left side or the front, by a blunt weapon, possibly the broad side of the sword or bladed weapon.

A large assemblage of small finds was recovered from the site. This includes ferrous and non-ferrous metal, stone, bone, glass and ceramic. A number of small finds were recovered directly associated with burials, e.g. three bone beads from separate infant burials, several pins including one iron shroud-pin and a number of iron knives. Most of the finds, however, were recovered from contexts within the burial horizon, and therefore some objects possibly represent material formerly associated with burials but disturbed by later recutting. Many artefacts of various types were recovered from contexts such as the enclosing inner and middle ditches. The finds assemblage includes shroud-pins, stick and possible ring-pins, iron knives, shears, gouges, D-shaped belt-buckles, nails, bone and blue glass beads, bone handles and double-sided bone combs, one of which retained both decorated panels (dot-and-circle) held in place by four iron rivets. The pottery assemblage includes fragments of Phocaean red slipware (which derives from a site/town in Turkey called Phocaea, from the late Roman period), Bi amphora, D-ware, E-ware and several perforated ‘lids’ of unknown origin. Sherds of locally made Leinster cooking ware, datable to the late 11th or early 12th century, were recovered from later site contexts.

In summary, the excavations have revealed a portion of an enclosed cemetery that, by the nature of the burial phases and succession of ditches, clearly reflects a sequential development or growth of the site. The large number of finds of funerary, domestic and industrial nature suggests that the site was not used exclusively for burial and religious practices. Along with producing objects interpreted as the mounts and fittings for possible shrines or reliquaries, it is suggested that the site had a dual religious and secular function. This is further highlighted by the large volume of butchered animal bone from the inner and middle ditches and the large (used) millstone derived from the base of the stone-lined charnel pit, as well as features such as the furnace and hearths. This clearly shows that agricultural and industrial activities were undertaken on (or very close to) the site. During at least two stages the area was possibly discontinued as a cemetery, and during these times cobbled surfaces were constructed (there is also tentative evidence of a structure) before the site reverted back to a burial-ground.

What is certain is that the range and type of objects recovered from the site, especially the imported pottery of 6th-7th-century date, suggests that the site is of considerable status and importance. The exact dimensions of the enclosure may only be estimated; however, it is reasonable to assume that within the boundary of the site lies evidence of perhaps a church, ancillary buildings, possible workshops and certainly further burials. The ongoing post-excavation work is expected to be completed by summer 1999, at which time samples will be submitted for radiocarbon determination in an effort closely to date the burial and site sequences.