Fallen tree reveals medieval skeleton in Ireland

A fierce storm ripped across over northwest Ireland’s wild Atlantic coastline and tore a 215-year-old beech tree in the middle of a County Sligo field straight out of the ground.

It wasn’t the massive tree’s warped, spindly branches that drew wide-spread attention, however what was found ensnared in its tangled roots – half of a human skeleton pulled from its grave.

After learning of the discovery of the bones this past May, Ireland’s National Monuments Service called in archaeologist Marion Dowd to undertake a rescue excavation of the body that had, in essence, risen from the grave.

In her 20 years of academic and commercial work, Dowd had never seen anything like what she experienced at this site.

Having quite recently launched her own private firm, Sligo-Leitrim Archaeological Services, Dowd could not have asked for a more bizarre maiden project. “As excavations go, this was certainly an unusual circumstance,” Dowd says.

“The upper part of the skeleton was raised into the air trapped within the root system. The lower leg bones, however, remained intact in the ground. Effectively, as the tree fell, it snapped the skeleton in two.”

The lower leg bones of a medieval skeleton are shown in a grave in Collooney, Ireland.
The lower leg bones of a medieval skeleton are shown in a grave in Collooney, Ireland.

The skeletons still in the burial plot were in a very well preserved condition.

After Dowd’s excavation, osteoarchaeologist Linda Lynch conducted a 3-month analysis, the results of the radiocarbon dating uncovered that the grave belonged to a young man between the ages of 17 and 20 who died during the medieval period between 1030 and 1200 A.D.

With a height of 5 feet, 10 inches, he was much taller than the average medieval individual, which indicates he came from a family with relatively high social status who could bear a nourishing diet.

But, he did not have an easy childhood as mild spinal joint disease suggests he was involved in physical labor from an early age.

Dowd determined that the medieval teenager had received a formal Christian burial because his body was placed on his back in a customary east west orientation with his arms by his side.

While historical records show there was once a church and graveyard in the general area, no other bones or signs of additional burials were found in the immediate vicinity of the fallen tree.

Dowd estimates the grave was at least a foot under the ground and says the person who planted the beech tree around 1800 would have been unaware of the presence of a grave just beneath his feet.

It appears that the young man’s demise was a vicious one. Dowd found two slices to his ribs that were inflicted by a single-edged weapon, probably a knife.

She also found a visible stab wound to the left hand which suggests he may have attempted to defend himself from his attacker. “This burial gives us an knowledge into the life and tragic death of a young man in medieval Sligo,” Dowd says.

“He was almost certainly from a local Gaelic family, but whether he died in battle or was killed during a personal dispute, we will never know for sure.”

Dowd says there are no plans yet for further investigation of the bones, so this medieval murder mystery may endure. The remaining parts found beneath the uprooted tree will eventually be sent to the National Museum of Ireland in the capital city of Dublin.