The 600-year-old skeleton of a young woman, discovered at the site of a crannog in Northern Ireland, was not buried in a traditional manner – leading archaeologists to suspect foul play.
The crannog – a man-made island settlement – was discovered in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, last year during excavations for a new road. The woman, who was in her late teens, died around the 15th or 16th centuries. Her skull is damaged, but archaeologists are not sure if this was the cause of death or happened in disruption to the site in the centuries since.
Archaeologist Dr Nora Bermingham, who led the excavation, said: “The skeleton of a young woman, probably around 18 or 19 with very bad teeth, was found in the upper layers of the crannog. This person wasn’t laid out on their back in an east-west direction, which is normal for a Christian burial. The body seems to have been bundled into the position it was buried in. It’s not uncommon for people who have either committed crimes or people who have been murdered to have been buried in this fashion. All we can say at the moment was that the burial itself was in slight disarray, it was slightly disarticulated, which means that it wasn’t a normal internment.”
Dr John O’Keeffe, archaeologist with the Department of the Environment, said: “I very much suspect it was somebody who probably died suddenly and tragically at the site and rather than being brought to a graveyard they were buried there. I don’t know if that was clandestine or what.”
Thousands of artefacts dating between the 7th and 16th centuries have been discovered at the crannog site, including the remains of 30 wooden houses, the earliest of which were built around AD 670. The girl lived at the crannog when it was coming to the end of its time as a settlement.
Crannogs have been used as dwellings in the British Isles for at least 5,000 years. The island settlement was approached by a causeway from the shore and its entrance protected by a gate house, affording protection from hostile neighbours and wild animals.
The Fermanagh Crannog was probably the home of an extended noble family, along with servants and retinue. The house walls were insulated with heather and living conditions were cramped, but reasonably comfortable for the times – although damp floors from the surrounding lake would have been a breeding ground for bugs and parasites. The artefacts show that the inhabitants were self-sufficient, butchering their own animals and ploughing land for crops, as well as being skilled at metal working and carpentry.
Some of the most striking finds include a wooden bowl with a cross carved into its base, chess-like gaming pieces, leather shoes, and exquisite combs made from antler and bone. Some of the combs are similar to ones found in Dublin and York and date to the Viking period.