Human skeletal remains represent one of the most tangible forms of archaeological evidence since they are the actual physical remains of our ancestors – the very people who were responsible for the creation of all other archaeological evidence that we encounter in our work as archaeologists. Osteoarchaeological analyses can provide us with great insights concerning the physique, health, diet and lifestyles of our ancestors. If a biocultural approach is employed – whereby the skeletal evidence is combined with information derived from a wide variety of sources, including the environment and material culture – it is possible to gain an even more holistic understanding of past populations (see Bush and Zvelebil 1989; Roberts and Cox 2003). This type of multidisciplinary approach can be particularly rewarding since it provides insights into a variety of key themes, such as social structure, burial practices, labour divisions, warfare, economy and migrations. A brief review of some of the potential types of information that can be derived from the study of Irish archaeological human remains can be found in Murphy (2007).
During the nineteenth and early twentieth century a substantial amount of research was undertaken on Irish archaeological human skeletal remains (see Murphy 2002; Ó Donnabhaín and Murphy 2008). From the 1960s to the early 1980s there was a dearth of osteoarchaeologists in Ireland and such analyses were undertaken in Britain by recognised individuals, such as Professor Don Brothwell (e.g. Brothwell 1987). From the mid-1980s onwards Irish archaeologists began to seek specialist postgraduate training in osteoarchaeology and palaeopathology (e.g. O’Donovan 1985; Murphy 1994; McCarthy 2005). Indeed, human osteoarchaeology is now one of the growth areas within Irish archaeology and there are over 20 qualified osteoarchaeologists currently working on the island. Despite this situation, however, very few synthesis articles have been published which focus specifically on human remains.
In contrast, numerous high quality publications exist which focus on Ireland’s prehistory (e.g. Cooney and Grogan 1994; Waddell 2000). It is notable, however, that information concerning the corporeal remains of the people is largely restricted to a review of their mortuary practices. No information is provided concerning the contribution that human remains can make to major archaeological issues, including diet and economy, palaeodemography, health status and lifestyle. It is perhaps significant that references to published osteological reports are largely absent from the bibliographies of these books. The authors, however, cannot be blamed for this omission – much of the osteoarchaeological information for Ireland is inaccessible, residing in the ‘grey’ literature, while published osteological reports are often relegated to an appendix within an excavation report.
As such, very few academic publications which focus on osteoarchaeological research have been published for the prehistoric populations of Ireland. A number of case-study papers, published in Archaeology Ireland, have provided tantalising glimpses of the types of information that prehistoric assemblages contain (e.g. Buckley 1997; Murphy 2003). Recent research by Jessica Beckett has examined burials from Irish megalithic tombs (e.g. Beckett 2005), while Charles Mount and William O’Brien have studied Bronze Age burial practices (e.g. Mount 1997; O’Brien 1999) and Kerri Cleary (2005) has looked at evidence for human remains in Bronze Age settlements. In all of these cases, however, the emphasis has largely been on mortuary practice. To date, Catryn Power’s (1993) study remains the only research to have examined the health of Irish prehistoric populations. This work was undertaken prior to the major growth in developer-funded archaeology that occurred from the late 1990s onwards and many more prehistoric populations are now available for study.
Given this, the time is ripe to interrogate thoroughly the data that have been produced from this work. The project, which will focus on prehistory, represents the first stage in an attempt to synthesise the osteoarchaeological information available in Ireland for all periods. It is envisaged that the research has the potential to not only raise the profile of Irish osteoarchaeology and palaeopathology but that it will enable the information to be gained from the study of archaeological human remains to be placed firmly within the position it deserves amongst more mainstream Irish archaeology.