Meeting Our Medieval Ancestors from Ardreigh, Co. Kildare

Carmelita and her team analysing the Ardreigh assemblage

Rubicon’s osteoarchaeology team have recently completed analysis of a large assemblage of human remains from Ardreigh, Co. Kildare. They were excavated by Kildare County Council archaeologists at the site of a large medieval cemetery near the town of Athy. The Council commissioned Rubicon’s specialists to examine the skeletons following excavation, to see what information could be gathered about how these people lived, worked and died.

Work began on the material in 2008, as preparation started for the analysis of the 1,259 complete individuals, 170 boxes of incomplete individuals and one prehistoric cremation. For much of the next year osteoarchaeologists led by Carmelita Troy and assisted by Caoimhe Ní Thoibín, Niamh Carty and Darren Regan painstakingly examined each bone to unlock the secrets of Ardreigh’s medieval past.

A skull showing a 'sharp force' injury on the forehead

The team reported on their findings this year and they included some fascinating discoveries. It was clear from the remains that tuberculosis (TB) was a major problem for the locality, and there was also one case of probable leprosy in the group. Danger was never far away from the lives of inhabitants of medieval Ireland, and the people of Ardreigh were no different. Some of the bone had evidence for violent injuries; it was possible to identify that a number of these were caused by a ‘sharp force’, often seen when objects such as swords and knives are used, while others were caused by a ‘blunt force’ which could be the result of a fall but can also be a sign of violence.

A skull showing signs of trepanation

There was also evidence for surgical treatment amongst the population. Some of the individuals had undergone amputation, while others had been treated with trepanation, a process in which a hole is cut or scraped into the human skull in order to treat health problems related to the head or brain.  However, despite these efforts to heal the sick, the reality of illness in the medieval period was all too clear, with numerous signs of life-threatening infections, dental disease and degenerative joint disease of the spine and limbs.

A right femur (thigh bone) disfigured by a fracture and subsequent severe infection

The group of individuals from Ardreigh is one of the largest ever analysed in the country. It has given us an opportunity to open a window on the experiences of one medieval Irish population. Through specialist analysis these individuals can speak to us from across the centuries and tell us something of their lives; their lifestyles, traumas and struggles, allowing us to come closer than is otherwise possible to  the ordinary people of the past.

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