A few thoughts on excavating skeletons.

I think it’s fair to say that many non-archaeologists consider the excavation of skeletons to be quite central to their perception of what an archaeologist ‘does’. Google archaeologist and cartoon and you’ll get the picture.

B3, Smithfield

I’ll explore the reasons for this later but for the moment I’d like to consider the results of a rather unscientific poll where 10 random archaeologists and former archaeologists – for most Irish archaeologists are de facto former archaeologists – were asked how many skeletons they’d excavated over their careers. The results confirmed this writer as ‘king of the leaf and spoon’ as one respondent put it: where 6 had never gone near a skeleton (and a few of those were in archaeology for over 10 years), 2 had excavated five inhumations or less with 2 more having excavated five or more over the course of their careers. One of them had actually excavated over 30 burials in somewhat unusual circumstances having worked on the excavation of a large cemetery population.

B1South, Haymarket

It would therefore seem that excavating a skeleton is not considered a ‘normal’ activity on an archaeological site, unless of course a cemetery or a monastic foundation is being excavated. Indeed, many diggers show an initial reluctance to excavate a skeleton. Some feel they mightn’t be experienced enough, although the process is relatively straightforward and perhaps actually easier than looking for a differentiation in soil texture or colour indicative of a new archaeological stratum (which we refer to as ‘contexts’ or ‘features’). I have maybe come across one or two diggers who refused to dig a skeleton for other reasons, but on the whole, most will take the opportunity when presented.

In my own case, I certainly saw my first skeleton on my initial outing as a General Operative but wasn’t let near one until I worked in London in 1988, where I slowly and painstakingly (yes, I was trying to avoid that word) excavated two badly-preserved medieval burials close to Barking Abbey, perhaps taking as long to fill out the Museum of London skeleton recording form which appeared to require a knowledge of dentistry well beyond my own. Along with Conor Newman, I excavated a few more seventeenth-century skeletons in the full gaze of the public just under the cobbles at the entrance to Castlederg Bawn in ’92 and began to realise something of the public fascination with the human form reduced to bare bone. Here, our labours were interrupted by a British army foot patrol emerging gingerly from the morning mist off the River Derg. If they were aware of the diggers’ dictat that discourages walking over a cleaned-off surface, they were certainly ignoring it that morning: breaking cover was presumably considered safe – if you could stride backwards through an open space occupied by a few archaeologists. Conor at this stage had become something of a local celebrity and a badly aimed round from either side would have engendered some controversy. One soldier briefly took a beady eye from the hedgerow across the river and without pausing looked at the skull and ribcage in front of me and said ‘wouldn’t do your job mate!’ I assured him I could make the same observation regarding his own circumstances as he disappeared up towards the town.

St. Mochulla's Church, Tulla

It seems though I was to have more than my share of skeletons. A couple of disarticulated crania in a ditch off Castle Street said something about thirteenth-century jurisprudence in the city and indeed, it was rare outside of a graveyard to find an intact skeleton within an urban area. The ceallunach (or children’s burial ground) at Illaunloughan off Portmagee in Kerry produced many tiny skeletons which I washed and bagged over a few weeks in my parents’ house. I thus became even more intimate with the many minute particles of bone which make up the human form. There were a few more still on High Island and in St. Mochulla’s Church in Tulla however, it seemed as you ascended the ladder towards the venerable licence – enabling you to direct assessments and excavations – your time was spent mostly recording rather than digging. The one body we excavated along the Luas beside the Law Library was given to a supervisor, while I for my part looked on anxiously in the background, intent in keeping the drawing to myself.

Part of the Smithfield population

As a site director my first serious engagement with a burial population came at Smithfield, where 25 individuals appeared to indicate the presence of a gallows in the immediate vicinity. Another individual had been carefully buried just to the south in the foundation trench of an early eighteenth-century house on Haymarket. We’ll probably never know their names, however the work undertaken by Laureen Buckley gives some indication as to how they had lived their lives. It would appear that fighting and smoking were popular activities in Smithfield however I myself became fascinated by the former occupants of two grave cuts where the bodies had been removed in antiquity. Had there been a seventeenth-century Mary Magdalene on hand to remove the bodies after their burial? A grieving parent or perhaps a political disciple? We’ll never know.

B4, Smithfield

The excavation of human skeletons is obviously a time consuming business: the cranium is usually encountered first of all; the excavator then exposes it a little to catch the orientation of the body and then cleans the soil back with a trowel to expose the grave cut, an area where a slight difference in soil colour indicates the burial soil within which the body lies. Working from the edge of the cut, we usually go for the femurs, the long upper bones of the legs, to give an indication of the size of the individual being excavated before starting again from the skull. In good conditions it can take up to a day to fully expose an adult skeleton. A child takes longer: the bones are much smaller and more difficult to clean off and expose. It is necessary to clean off as much soil as possible using smaller tools such as plastic cable ties, plasterers’ leafs and make-up brushes, getting in under the long bones which are then held in position by a thin platform of soil. Exposing the bone to the air hardens it slightly and makes it easier to ‘lift’ once the skeleton has been recorded.

B6, Smithfield, located under a wall dating from the 1660s

This initially involves drawing the skeleton, usually at 1/20 although I’d record smaller remains at 1/10 to make as detailed a drawing as possible. The skeleton is then photographed, with more detailed shots recording the position of the hands on or beside the pelvis or any unusual features of the skeleton noticed by the excavator. A pro-forma sheet is then filled in, recording the detail of the bones present and any stratigraphical information which might assist the phasing of the burial during the post-excavation analysis. The burial is then ‘lifted’, which involves transferring the remains from the ground into transparent plastic bags which are pre-labelled to identify the bones within. Many bags are used: the skull and mandible are given separate bags, as are the upper arm bones (right and left) and so on, with both feet usually getting a bag of their own unless they separated cleanly after burial.

B20, Smithfield. Note the fused rib

I’m looking across now at the bones of two individuals excavated on May Lane, between Smithfield and Church Street, skeletons I removed last week with the help of Ruth Johnson, Dublin City Archaeologist. A drainage pipe was being brought along about 2m under the road in the vicinity of St. Michan’s church, where the basement of a large empty NAMAed building alongside had been excavated by Giles Dawkes several years previously. Here, a total of 224 articulated skeletons and disarticulated skulls were excavated, including infant and juvenile burials and numerous wooden coffins. The two individuals in my office were part of this population and can probably be dated to the second half of the seventeenth century on the basis of pottery and clay pipe fragments recovered from the burial soil.

Adult burial on May Lane

The first had lost its upper body perhaps in the nineteenth century, leaving the legs and the hands resting below where the pelvis had been. The doctor called in by the Gardaí to issue a death certificate was unsure of this orientation and had convinced himself that the hands were actually feet. The second body was that of a child, perhaps 4 or 5 years of age, who had been carefully covered in a shroud before being placed in the coffin. The timber and material did not survive, however the tiny shroud pins had transferred their copper patina onto the cranium and the ribs, with another pin located just below the pelvis. The hands had been placed on the pelvis, the thumbs and forefingers poignantly forming a diamond shape where the tips made contact, perhaps the final action of the parent before a last glimpse was taken of the child’s face.

Infant burial on May Lane

I was fortunate that I wasn’t given much time to consider these thoughts as I cleaned off the ribs and tiny fingers with a plastic spoon and cable tie. I had started to count the passers-by who’d stopped to look at me working and had given up by about 500 after the lunchtime rush had dissipated on Day 1. The questions were many and varied and ranged from the mundane to the extraordinarily thoughtful and prescient. I did my best to answer anyone who posed a question and was gratified somewhat by the genuine interest shown. For the past number of years health and safety regulations have effectively barred the general public from archaeological excavations on construction sites, forcing a disconnect between what we do and what the public thinks we do, creating a vacuum which is filled by Time Team and other programmes which hurriedly explore our physical past. Many colleagues (and I’m referring here to field archaeologists, rather than those who teach or who concentrate on landscapes and legislation) have expressed a jaded dissatisfaction with the way our work is presented in the popular media, with there being little focus on the more mundane aspects of our job, whether that be in the field, or indeed preparing a final report for planning compliance or, God forbid, publication. I was somewhat glad I wasn’t spotted wielding a mattock or shovelling spoil off the area of excavation and was happy to present a public persona as someone down on my knees with filthy hands, seriously undertaking a necessary job and willing to engage with whatever was thrown at me from a cross section of the population gathered in a social Panavision. Barristers, junkies, tourists, office workers school kids and their parents all stopped to consider the spectacle, many staying for up to half an hour.

Detail of infant's legs

Some pointed out an adjacent line of plastic ducting put in by the ESB several years ago. The ducting had truncated the lower left leg of the adult, leaving the kneecap surprisingly in situ. Had they not seen this when they were digging? Presumably not, however would they have bothered to stop the job until an archaeologist was summonsed? I would doubt it, but I left it to my observant audience to make up their own minds.

The discovery of the child early on the Saturday morning brought many more people down to May Lane. Here was something perhaps beyond what many would expect from a skeleton. Had the child been murdered? Probably not. The copper from the shroud pin had left a green smear on the skull crushed by the weight of the soil above, indicating that despite the obvious distressed appearance of the skeleton, that some care had been taken in the final moments prior to burial. I had one interesting discussion regarding the child’s religious confession. The cemetery by that was stage was exclusively Church of Ireland, although this can not be a given. How had the child lived? Again, not being an expert in skeletal pathology I was only able to assume that the child was afforded a ‘proper’ burial and therefore could possibly be from at least the middling stratum of society. There did appear to be a pre-mortem break in the right radius, but then again, that’s children for you. I began however to notice that many more people were silent in their contemplation of the small body before them, where some even refused to accept it was that of a child. Their denial underlined for me the sad fact that child mortality rates in Dublin were among the highest in Europe until well into the twentieth century.

One person blogged the excavation at http://abigailrieley.com/wordpress/index.php/2011/10/15/the-past-under-our-feet/ providing a thoughtful and empathetic account of the proceedings. Many seem to have Tweeted the excavation and many more took photos with their phones, which brought even more onlookers down to the site to see for themselves. For the most part their curiosity did not appear ghoulish and a casual interest transformed itself into something more nuanced as I continued exposing further the remains.

B19, Smithfield. This burial had been placed in a shoud and accidentally buried face down

Skeletons present perhaps more of a vision of the future than a snapshot of some past anonymous life, in this case a life briefly lived. We see what we’ll all eventually become and perhaps appreciate our own potential as human beings now as we grope our way through a world emerging from modernity, one as inequitable and perhaps as barbarous as anything experienced in the past. While this might appear to be an obvious, even a vacuous point to make, it’s brought home when considering the work undertaken in former Yugoslavia and in Spain where archaeologists continue to investigate the mass graves of Francoist repression. In this regard I’m looking forward to reading Layla Renshaw’s Exhuming Loss: Memory, Materiality and Mass Graves of the Spanish Civil War (Left Coast Press, 2011). This book, according to the blurb, examines the contested representations of those murdered in two small rural communities as they undergo the experience of exhumation, identification, and reburial from nearby mass graves. Based on interviews with relatives of the dead, members of the community and forensic archaeologists, it examines the role of excavated objects and images in breaking the pact of silence that surrounded the memory of these events for decades afterwards. The book also assesses the significance of archaeological and forensic practices in changing relationships between the living and dead.

One of the bodies in this Smithfield grave (left) had been drawn and quartered

What separates the bodies I’ve excavated over the years from those in Spain and the Balkans is their very anonymity; the recent creation of the Spanish grave sites implies a specifically political purpose, making identification of the bodies a crucial element of the investigations. Yet it is difficult to avoid imagining a young life lived within the seventeenth-century parish of St. Michan’s, it is difficult not to compare this child’s life with that of your own children and to extrapolate their hopes for the future from the future denied the bones now drying out here beside me on the table.

3 responses to “A few thoughts on excavating skeletons.

  1. Pingback: Αρχαίος σκελετός γοργόνας στην Βουλγαρία ! | AntiChainLetter

  2. The infant skeleton in May Lane – am I right in seeing four patellae? Are we seeing an example of bipartite patellae here?

  3. A hilarious bunch of comments on the facebook Anthropology group concerning the fake mermaid rendition of the site.

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