Category Archives: IRELAND

Ancient Irish DNA reveals incredible secrets, including Down Syndrome

Ancient Irish DNA reveals incredible secrets, including Down Syndrome

In the earliest periods of Irish history, archaeologists and geneticists led by those from Trinity have shed new light.

The Poulnabrone portal dolmen in County Clare where the fascinating discovery was made.

The amazing findings of this study include an adult male genome hidden in the heart of the Newgrange passage tomb points to first-degree incest, implying he was among a ruling social elite akin to the similarly inbred Inca god-kings and Egyptian pharaohs.

Newgrange passage tomb in Ireland is world-famous for its annual solar alignment where the winter solstice sunrise illuminates its sacred inner chamber in a golden blast of light. However, little is known about who was interred in the heart of this imposing 200,000 tonnes monument or of the Neolithic society which built it over 5,000 years ago.

The survey of ancient Irish genomes, published in Nature, suggests a man who had been buried in this chamber belonged to a dynastic elite.

The research, led by the team from Trinity, was carried out in collaboration with colleagues from University College London, NUIG, University College Cork, University of Cambridge, Queen’s University Belfast, Sligo Institute of Technology and the National Monuments Service, with support from the National Museum of Ireland and National Museums Northern Ireland.

“I’d never seen anything like it,” said Lara Cassidy, professor at Trinity College Dublin, first author of the paper. “We all inherit two copies of the genome, one from our mother and one from our father; well, this individual’s copies were extremely similar, a tell-tale sign of close inbreeding. In fact, our analyses allowed us to confirm that his parents were first-degree relatives.”

Matings of this type (e.g. brother-sister unions) are a near universal taboo for entwined cultural and biological reasons. The only confirmed social acceptances of first-degree incest are found among the elites – typically within a deified royal family.

By breaking the rules, the elite separates itself from the general population, intensifying hierarchy and legitimising power. Public ritual and extravagant monumental architecture often co-occur with dynastic incest, to achieve the same ends.

“Here the auspicious location of the male skeletal remains is matched by the unprecedented nature of his ancient genome,” said Professor of Population Genetics at Trinity, Dan Bradley. “The prestige of the burial makes this very likely a socially sanctioned union and speaks of a hierarchy so extreme that the only partners worthy of the elite were family members.”

The team also unearthed a web of distant familial relations between this man and other individuals from sites of the passage tomb tradition across the country, including the mega-cemeteries of Carrowmore and Carrowkeel in Co. Sligo.

“It seems what we have here is a powerful extended kin-group, who had access to elite burial sites in many regions of the island for at least half a millennium,” added Cassidy.

Remarkably, a local myth resonates with these results and the Newgrange solar phenomenon. First recorded in the 11th century AD, four millennia after construction, the story tells of a builder-king who restarted the daily solar cycle by sleeping with his sister.

The Middle Irish place name for the neighbouring Dowth passage tomb, Fertae Chuile, is based on this lore and can be translated as “Hill of Sin.”

“Given the world-famous solstice alignments of Brú na Bóinne, the magical solar manipulations in this myth already had scholars questioning how long an oral tradition could survive,” said Ros Ó Maoldúin, an archaeologist on the study. “To now discover a potential prehistoric precedent for the incestuous aspect is extraordinary.”

The genome survey stretched over two millennia and unearthed other unexpected results. Within the oldest known burial structure on the island, Poulnabrone portal tomb, the earliest yet diagnosed case of Down Syndrome was discovered in a male infant who was buried there five and a half thousand years ago.

Poulnabrone tomb, in The Burren, County Clare.

Additionally, the analyses showed that the monument builders were early farmers who migrated to Ireland and replaced the hunter-gatherers who preceded them. However, this replacement was not absolute; a single western Irish individual was found to have an Irish hunter-gatherer in his recent family tree, pointing toward a swamping of the earlier population rather than an extermination.

Genomes from the rare remains of Irish hunter-gatherers themselves showed they were most closely related to the hunter-gatherer populations from Britain (e.g. Cheddar Man) and mainland Europe.

However, unlike British samples, these earliest Irelanders had the genetic imprint of a prolonged island isolation. This fits with what we know about prehistoric sea levels after the Ice Age: Britain maintained a land bridge to the continent long after the retreat of the glaciers, while Ireland was separated by sea and its small early populations must have arrived in primitive boats.

10-Year-Old Boy Finds Centuries-Old Sword in Northern Ireland

10-Year-Old Boy Finds Centuries-Old Sword in Northern Ireland

Fionntan Hughes, Ten years old received a metal detector for his birthday in July. Hughes discovered a centuries-old sword hidden about a foot underground the first time he took it out for a walk, reports Eimear Flanagan for BBC News.

On the banks of the Blackwater River near his home in Northern Ireland, Fionntan, father, and cousin used a metal detector when they found the sword in their third strike.

They dug up the large, mud-covered object, brought it home and washed it off with a garden hose, Fionntan tells Aftenposten Junior. That revealed it was half of a rusted, old sword with an ornate pommel.

“I felt excited,” Fionntan tells BBC Newsline’s Cormac Campbell. “because it was a sword and it was just here, and I didn’t really expect anything too big.”

The sword’s ornate handle is its most identifiable feature, but antique experts Mark and David Hawkins tell BBC News that the sword is difficult to identify from photographs because the rust may be exaggerating its size. But it looks like an English basket-hilted broadsword that was introduced between 1610 to 1640.

It seems to have a plum pudding pommel, which is “typical of the early types,” the Hawkins tells BBC News, but because some designs were used by English officers for more than a century, they suspect this sword is from the late 1600s or early 1700s.

A young boy with a metal detector has made an amazing discovery in Northern Ireland. With the detector, given to him on his birthday, he found an Irish historic sword that could be up to 300 years old.
A young boy with a metal detector has made an amazing discovery in Northern Ireland. With the detector, given to him on his birthday, he found an Irish historic sword that could be up to 300 years old.

Most metal detectorists are not so lucky, but between 1997 and 2016, amateur history fans found about 1 million archaeological discoveries in the United Kingdom alone.

In 1992, a man looking for his lost hammer happened upon a 60-pound hoard of Roman gold and silver artifacts. In 2016, another metal detectorist found a hoard of Viking artifacts.

A 2019 discovery showed evidence of 11th-century tax evasion, and this June, a Welsh man found a lead ingot inscribed with Latin.

The U.K.’s Treasure Act of 1996 requires those who discover caches of buried treasure to report their finds to the local coroner’s office, who will then notify local authorities.

Last year, four men received sentences of between five and ten years in prison because they didn’t report the Viking artifacts they found in 2015, Lateshia Beachum reported for the Washington Post at the time.

After Fionntan and his family realized he had found a sword, his father Paul Hughes notified the National Museums Northern Ireland archaeology curator Greer Ramsey. Ramsey is now in the process of identifying the sword in more detail, as per BBC News.

“The last thing I want is for it to be left rusting away in my garage,” Hughes tells BBC News, adding that he worries the sword is “deteriorating by the day.”

The family hopes to give it to a museum for preservation and eventual display. But the Covid-19 pandemic has made it challenging to hand the sword off to a museum expert, according to Aftenposten Junior.

The riverbank where Fionntan found the sword was dredged in the 1980s, which would have displaced sediment and objects at the bottom of the river, reports BBC Newsline.

Because of that, the family believes there may be more interesting artifacts buried nearby. And Fionntan tells BBC News that he’s looking forward to going metal detecting again.

Extraordinary 1,000-Year-Old Viking Sword Discovered In Cork, Ireland

Extraordinary 1,000-Year-Old Viking Sword Discovered In Cork, Ireland

Among several significant findings that contradict the belief that the Scandinavian invaders were most strongly influential in the cities of Dublin and Waterford, a perfectly preserved wooden Viking sword was uncovered in Cork.

Archaeologists discovered the sword, about a foot long, at the historic site of the former Beamish and Crawford brewery in ‘ the Rebel City ‘

Believed to have been used by female weavers, the 1,000-year-old sword made of wood is heavily designed and has astounded those who found it with its pristine condition. 

Crafted entirely from yew, the hilt of the Viking sword is carved with faces associated with the Ringerike style of Viking art,  a style that dates to the 11th century. 

The sword was unearthed during recent excavations at the South Main Street site and consultant archaeologist Dr. Maurice Hurley said it was one of the several Viking artifacts of “exceptional significance” to be discovered at an excavation that ended last June. 

Other finds included intact ground plans of 19 Viking houses, remnants of central hearths, and bedding material. These finds have convinced archeologists that the influence the Vikings had in Cork city has been underappreciated, that it may be comparable to that in Dublin and Waterford. 

“For a long time there was a belief that the strongest Viking influence was in Dublin and Waterford, but the full spectrum of evidence shows that Cork was in the same cultural sphere and that its development was very similar,” Hurley told RTÉ.

The hilt of the 30cm (12 inches) long Viking weaving tool (BAM Ireland)

“A couple of objects similar to the weaver’s sword have been found in Wood Quay [in Dublin], but nothing of the quality of craftsmanship and preservation of this one. 

“The sword was used probably by women, to hammer threads into place on a loom; the pointed end is for picking up the threads for pattern-making. It’s highly decorated – the Vikings decorated every utilitarian object,” he continued.

The Viking sword was discovered at the building site of a new, 6,000-seat event center in Cork, a project that was put on hold as archaeologists were called in to further explore the discoveries.

Although the archaeological team left the site last June, the developers, BAM Ireland, have not yet given any indication as to when construction will resume. 

A spokesperson for the developers stated they were happy to fund the excavation and to add to the heritage and history of the city. 

Although originally discovered last May, the finds only recently become mainstream knowledge due to a visit to the Cork Public Museum by the Norwegian Ambassador to Ireland, Else Berit Eikeland. 

The Medieval Book That Emerged from a Bog After 1200 Years

The Medieval Book That Emerged from a Bog After 1200 Years

The book that emerged from a bog after 1200 years

This is the remarkable story of a medieval book that spent 1200 years in the mud. Around 800 someones had a Book of Psalms made, a portable copy fitted with a leather satchel.

The book consisted of sixty sheets of parchment that were carefully filled with handwritten words. Somehow the book ended up in a remote bog at Faddan More in north Tipperary, close to the town of Birr, Ireland.

Dropped, perhaps, by the owner? Was he walking and reading at the same time? Did he himself also end up in the bog?

Fast-forward to 2006. Eddie Fogarty, the operator of a turf digger, noticed an object with faint lettering in the bucket of his machine.

Thanks to the conservation properties of turf, many pages of the book were still intact, as was its leather satchel the only surviving specimen from this early period.

Faddan More Psalter, c. 800: when it was found.

There it was again, our Book of Psalms! At this point, it resembled something from an Aliens movie (pic 2), but that changed quickly after it went to the restoration lab.

Faddan More Psalter, c. 800: before the start of restoration

Thanks to the conservation properties of turf, many pages were still intact, as was its leather satchel (pic 3), the only surviving specimen from this early period.

Faddan More Psalter, c. 800: restored cover

Remarkably, among the damaged pages were some that had let go of the words: kept together merely by ink, the words were floating around by themselves – like some sort of medieval Scrabble (pic 4). It’s the most remarkable bookish survival story I know.

Faddan More Psalter, c. 800: words without a page

Evidence for prehistoric human dismemberment found at Carrowkeel, Ireland

Evidence for prehistoric human dismemberment found at Carrowkeel, Ireland

The ancient people of Ireland have provided new insights into the death rites. And they’re a bit disgusting. A little disgusting. The New Zealand University of Otago ‘s Anatomy Department has studied ancient Irish funerals. The results were published in the Bioarchaeology International journal.

Dr. Jonny Geber, the lead author of the new paper, focuses on the Passage Tomb Complex, which is 5,000 years old at Carrowkeel in County Sligo in northwestern Ireland.

This place is one of Europe’s most remarkable ritual landscapes. But despite that, is relatively unknown.

Cairn K – Part of a 5000-year-old Passage Tomb Complex at Carrowkeel in County Sligo in the north-west of Ireland. This site is one of the most impressive Neolithic ritual landscapes in Europe, but despite that, is relatively unknown.

The research team analyzed bones from up to seven passage tombs that included both unburnt and cremated human remains from around 40 individuals. Much remains unknown about these Stone Age people.

Dr. Geber says he and his colleagues determined that the unburnt bone displayed evidence of dismemberment.

“We found indications of cut marks caused by stone tools at the site of tendon and ligament attachments around the major joints, such as the shoulder, elbow, hip, and ankle,” he says.

Cut marks on some of the human remains which were discovered at Carrowkeel Cut marks, marked in white (above) and magnified (below), observed on a left humerus (upper arm) from Cairn K (a), the ilium of a left coxae (part of the pelvis) from Cairn K (b), and a right femur (upper leg) from Cairn K (c)
One of the 18 boxes re-discovered in the Duckworth Laboratory at the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies, University of Cambridge, England.

Dr. Geber says the new evidence suggests that a complex burial rite was undertaken at Carrowkeel, which involved a funerary rite that placed a particular focus on the “deconstruction” of the body.

“This appears to entail the bodies of the dead being ‘processed’ by their kin and community in various ways, including cremation and dismemberment.

It was probably done with the goal to help the souls of the dead to reach the next stages of their existence.”

This study has been able to show that the Carrowkeel complex was most likely a highly significant place in Neolithic society in Ireland and one which allowed for interaction and a spiritual connection with the ancestors.

The evidence suggests that the people of Neolithic Ireland may have shared similar beliefs and ideologies concerning the treatment of the dead with communities beyond the Irish Sea, according to the researchers, Dr. Geber says.

So if an Irish relative proposes dismembering you after death, don’t be offended, they are just following original Irish burial rites. Ick!

Evidence of Iron Age temples uncovered at Navan Fort

Evidence of Iron Age temples uncovered at Navan Fort

During an examination of the Navan Forts in Co Armagh, Queen’s boffins uncovered evidence of a huge temple complex. The discovery at Ulster’s mythical capital, known as Emain Macha, could date back as far as the Iron Age.

The research was worked together by scholars from Queen’s, the University of Aberdeen, and the German Archaeological Institute, Frankfurt.

They believe it evidences a vast temple complex and ceremonial center of prehistoric Europe, as well as the first evidence of continued medieval activity when Navan Fort was associated with the kingship of Ulster.

Dr Patrick Gleeson, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at the School of Natural and Built Environment at Queen’s, said: “Excavation in the 1960s uncovered one of the most spectacular series of buildings of any region of prehistoric Europe, including a series of figure-of-8 buildings of the Early Iron Age and a 40m timber-ringed structure constructed c.95 BC.

“Upon the latter’s construction, it was immediately filled with stones and burnt to the ground in order to create a massive mound that now dominates the site.

“Our discoveries add significant additional data, hinting that the buildings uncovered in the 1960s were not domestic structures lived in by kings, but a series of massive temples, some of the largest and most complex ritual arena of any region of later prehistoric and pre-Roman Northern Europe.”

The survey’s findings will be published in the Oxford Journey of Archaeology.

Navan Fort was one of Ireland’s so-called Royal sites – a group of five ceremonial centers of prehistoric origins that were documented in medieval times as the capitals of the five fifths that divided Ireland.

It is hoped this work to uncover what was once at Navan will “add rich discoveries to the iconic site of Navan Fort”.

But these efforts, which are part of the Comparative Kingship project funded by the Leverhulme Trust, and supported by Historic Environment Division of the Department of Communities, are in their initial stages.

Dr. John O’Keeffe, Principal Inspector of Historic Monuments in the Department for Communities, said: “We were pleased to facilitate the survey work at Navan Fort, which is owned by the Department for Communities and is one of 190 State Care Monuments in Northern Ireland managed by the Department for Communities.

“The work has shone new light on the monument and will inform further research as we explore what Navan Fort meant to our forebears and how they used the site, for years to come.

“It provides additional insights that inform visits to this enigmatic monument and landscape today.”

Navan Fort is one of Ireland’s most ancient landscapes because it is the seat of legendary kings, like Chonchobhar and mac Nessa, and provides the backdrop to the exploits of warriors like Cú Chulainn, Conal Cernach and others in the great epic saga Táin Bó Cuailainge, or the Cattle Raid of Colley.

In addition to identifying residences of early medieval kings of Ulster, activity at Navan Fort is contemporary with the foundation of Armagh by St Patrick only 1km to the east. Some of the buildings uncovered are likely to be identifiable with the house built by Níall ÓG Ua Neill for all the poets of Ireland in 1387.

It also appears that activity continued at Navan after the coming of Christianity and the foundation of Armagh, the primatial see of the Church in Ireland, is particularly significant.

5,000-year-old Sligo tombs being destroyed by vandals, say archaeologists

5,000-year-old Sligo tombs being destroyed by vandals, say archaeologists

Five-thousand-year-old Neolithic tombs in Co Sligo are suffering damage and vandalism “on a scale never seen before” and will not survive unless action is taken immediately, archaeological experts have warned.

There are 75 passage tombs in Co Sligo, almost one-third of the estimated 240 in the State, according to the Sligo Neolithic Landscapes Group, which is pressing for the county’s Neolithic heritage to be deemed a World Heritage Site by Unesco.

In County Sligo, almost a one-third of all Neolithic tombs in the Republic of Ireland are found with a total of 75 tombs.

A Megalithic passage tomb in Carrowkeel is one of several that has been damaged in recent weeks.

The Sligo Neolithic Landscapes Group said that so much material had been taken from one passage tomb – Teach Cailleach a’ Bheara (the House of the Witch) – that there is now a hole large enough for an adult to lie in.

Dr. Robert Hensey, a neolithic expert, said that people are walking on top of some cairns so frequently that there is now a fear that they will be lost during this generation.

“Not only is there a fear that they won’t be there for future generations, but they may also be lost to this generation,” Hensey told the Irish Times. 

The Sligo Neolithic Landscapes Group is advocating for the county’s neolithic heritage to be deemed a Unesco World Heritage Site and warned that the landscape is “very fragile” and under an “existential threat.”

Increased footfall has additionally damaged one of Sligo’s best-known landmarks, Dr. Hensey warned. Queen Maebdh’s cairn on the top of Knocknarea has suffered walking scars, according to Hensey, due to the increased traffic. 

The megalithic passage grave at Carrowkeel has also been plagued by graffiti, with several people scratching their names into the stones, potentially damaging the megalithic art.

Hensey additionally said that some people have been stealing quartz from some tombs to sell online, while others are looking for secret passages at tombs in the hope of finding undiscovered chambers containing treasures of gold or bronze.

Martin Kenny, a Sinn Féin TD for Sligo, Leitrim, North Roscommon, and South Donegal, is calling on Michael Malcolm Noon, the Minister for State for Heritage. to take action against the vandalism and to support the Sligo Neolithic Landscape Group in their bid to make the landscape a World Heritage Site. 

He said that he has also invited the Minister of State to visit Sligo and see the tombs for himself. 

“I have invited the minister of state to visit Sligo and see the sites for himself and he assures me that he will take action, immediately, to protect the tombs,” Kenny told the Leitrim Observer. 

How DNA has shed light on the Irish pharaoh and his ancient tomb builders

How DNA has shed light on the Irish pharaoh and his ancient tomb builders

A team of Irish geneticists and archaeologists reported that a man whose cremated remains were interred at the heart of Newgrange was the product of a first-degree incestuous union, either between parent and child or brother and sister.

A photo provided by Ken Williams shows the central burial chamber at Newgrange, a 5,000-year-old Irish tomb in the valley of the River Boyne, near Dublin. In a new analysis of ancient human DNA from Newgrange, researchers found evidence of brother-sister incest that suggests the existence of a ruling elite.

The finding, combined with other genetic and archaeological evidence, suggests that the people who built these mounds lived in a hierarchical society with a ruling elite that considered themselves so close to divine that, like the Egyptian pharaohs, they could break the ultimate taboos.

In Ireland, more than 5,000 years ago people farmed and raised cattle. But they were also moved, like their contemporaries throughout Europe, to create stunning monuments to the dead, some with precise astronomical orientations.

Stonehenge, a later megalith in the same broad tradition as Newgrange, is famous for its alignment to the summer and winter solstice. The central underground room at Newgrange is built so that as the sun rises around the time of the winter solstice it illuminates the whole chamber through what is called a roof box.

Archaeologists have long wondered what kind of society built such a structure, which they think must have had a ritual or spiritual significance. If, as the new findings indicate, it was a society that honoured the product of an incestuous union by interring his remains at the most sacred spot in a sacred place, then the ancient Irish may well have had a ruling religious hierarchy, perhaps similar to those in ancient societies in Egypt, Peru, and Hawaii, which also allowed marriages between brother and sister.

In a broad survey of ancient DNA from bone samples previously collected at Irish burial sites thousands of years old, the researchers also found genetic connections among people interred in other Irish passage tombs, named for their underground chambers or passages. That suggests that the ruling elite were related to one another.

Daniel G Bradley, of Trinity College, Dublin, a specialist in ancient DNA who led the team with Lara M Cassidy, a specialist in population genetics and Irish prehistory also at Trinity College, said the genome of the man who was a product of incest was a complete surprise. They and their colleagues reported their findings in the journal Nature.

Newgrange is part of a necropolis called Bru na Boinne, or the palace of the Boyne, dating to around 5,000 years ago that includes three large passage tombs and many other monuments. It is one of the most remarkable of Neolithic monumental sites in all of Europe.

Of the site’s tombs, Bradley said, “Newgrange is the apogee.” It is not just that it incorporates 200,000 tons of earth and stone, some brought from kilometers away. It also has a precise orientation to the winter sun.

On any day, “when you go into the chamber, it’s a sort of numinous space, it’s a liminal space, a place that inspires a sort of awe,” Bradley said.

That a bone recovered from this spot produced such a genomic shocker seemed beyond coincidence. This had to be a prominent person, the researchers reasoned. He wasn’t placed there by accident, and his parentage was unlikely to be an accident. “Whole chunks of the genome that he inherited from his mother and father, whole chunks of those were just identical,” Bradley said. The conclusion was unavoidable: “It’s a pharaoh, I said. It’s an Irish pharaoh.”

David Reich of Harvard University, one of the ancient DNA specialists who has tracked the grand sweep of prehistoric human migration around the globe, and was not involved in the research, called the journal article “amazing.”

“I think it’s part of the wave of the future about how ancient DNA will shed light on social structure, which is really one of its most exciting promises,” he said, although he had some reservations about evidence that the elite was genetically separate from the common people, a kind of royal family.

Bettina Schulz Paulsson, a prehistoric archaeologist at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, said the researchers’ finding that suggested a religious hierarchy was a “very attractive hypothesis.”

The paper is rich with other detail, including the discovery that an infant had Down syndrome. The authors believe this is the oldest record of Down syndrome. Chemical tests of the bone also showed that the infant had been breastfed and that he was placed in an important tomb. Both of those facts suggest that he was well cared for, in keeping with numerous other archaeological finds of children and adults with illnesses or disabilities who were supported by their cultures.

Cassidy said they also found DNA in other remains that indicated relatives of the man who was a child of royal incest were placed in other significant tombs. “This man seemed to form a distinct genetic cluster with other individuals from passage tombs across the island,” she said.

She said “we also found a few direct kinship links,” ancient genomes of individuals who were distant cousins. That contributed to the idea that there was an elite who directed the building of the mounds. In that context, it made sense that the incest was intentional. That’s not something that can be proved, of course, but other societies have encouraged brother-sister incest.

“The few examples where it is socially accepted,” she said, are “extremely stratified societies with an elite class who are able to break rules.”