Exciting research by the LIARI Project has revealed the presence of ‘immigrant’ burials at a Late Iron Age/Early Medieval cemetery in Bettystown, Co. Meath.
Excavated over two phases, the Bettystown burial ground contained the remains of circa 70 people who were buried between the 4th and 6th centuries AD (O’Kelly, 1977-79 & Eogan 1998). Specialist analysis of the human remains has now revealed that at least two of these individuals were not born in Ireland.
The first of these ‘immigrant’ burials was a man who died sometime in the 5th or 6th century AD. He had been carefully placed within a stone-lined grave that was broadly orientated east-west (see image to the right). The body was in crouched position, which is unusual, as during this period the vast majority of Irish people were buried in a supine state (flat on their backs).
Even more remarkably, isotope analysis of the man’s teeth revealed that he was not born in Ireland, or indeed anywhere in Britain. Instead, the results were consistent with an origin in eastern Europe or possibly Scandinavia (Cahill Wilson 2014, p. 140)
Interestingly, the remains of a second probable ‘immigrant’ were also identified at Bettystown. Again this person was a male, who had been buried in a crouched position, sometime between the 4th and 7th centuries AD. Isotope analysis of the man’s teeth revealed an origin in either southern Portugal or along the north African coast (Cahill Wilson 2014, p. 131).
How these two men came to live and die in coastal Meath remains uncertain, although it is possible that they were involved in seaborne trade. During the Later Iron Age and Earlier Medieval period, the Irish Sea coast, especially around Dublin and Meath, appears to have been an important focus for international trade. There is a concentration of imported material in this region and local coastal sites, such as a Drumanagh in north Co. Dublin and possibly Bettystown, may have acted as trading hubs.
Cahill Wilson, J., Standish, C. and O’Brien, E. (2014) ‘ Investigating mobility and migration in the later Irish Iron Age’ in Late Iron Age and Roman Ireland, Discovery Programme Reports 8, Wordwell Ltd., Dublin, pp. 127-149
Eogan, J. (2010) ‘Excavation of an unenclosed early medieval cemetery at Bettystown, Co. Meath’ in Corlett, C. & Potterton, M. Death and Burial in Early Medieval Ireland, Wordwell Ltd., Dublin. pp. 103-116
Kelly E. P. Excavation: 1977-79:0057 – Betaghstown, Meath
Eogan, J. Excavation: 1998:503 – Bettystown, Meath
Crouched burial photo by James Eoghan modified after Cahill Wilson et al (2014), p. 140
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