When an old beech tree was uprooted during a winter storm in Ireland, it yielded a bony surprise: the skeletal remains of a medieval boy.
The 215-year-old tree was located in Collooney, a Sligo county town on Ireland's northwestern coast. Sligo-Leitrim Archaeological Services, a private consultancy, arrived at the scene and conducted a preliminary analysis of the bones. According to osteoarchaeologist Linda Lynch, the remains belonged to a young man about 17 to 20 years old at the time of his death.
Lynch and her colleagues dated the bones, measuring carbon-14, a radiocarbon or a radioactive isotope that occurs naturally in the environment. Since the isotope decays at a steady pace, it can be used to determine the age of an organic material by the amount of radiocarbon left in the sample. Based on the results, the researchers believe the boy lived during the medieval period, dying between 1030 and 1200.
Although the positioning of the skeleton indicates that the boy was given a formal Christian burial, he didn't die under normal circumstances. Lynch found evidence of this in the bones — revealing that he died violently, with injuries on his hand and ribs likely to have come from a knife. It's possible that the boy was simply a victim of opportunity, but it's clear that he didn't have an easy life, as shown by a mild spinal joint disease associated with physical labor at a young age.
The entirety of the skeleton was found under the tree earlier this year, but when the beech was toppled, it took the upper part of the body with it, which was entangled in the roots. The rest of the remains were discovered in the ground.
"We did not encounter any other burials, but 19th-century records state that there is a church and graveyard somewhere in the wider vicinity," said Marion Dowd, archaeologist and Sligo-Leitrim Archaeological Services director.
The researchers will be following archaeological legislation, so once they are done examining the medieval boy's remains, they will send the skeleton to the National Museum of Ireland Dublin for keeping.
Photo: Alexander Boden | Flickr