Roscommon’s forgotten cemetery: excavation results at Ranelagh revealed

Ranelagh ringfort and cemetery complex, AD 350–650
Artist's impression of Phase 2 activity (AD 350–650) at Ranelagh ringfort and cemetery complex, Co. Roscommon (source: Wordwell).

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Ahead of the launch of a new publication by Wordwell Books, “The Forgotten Cemetery: Excavations at Ranelagh, Co. Roscommon”, Martin Jones, archaeologist with Transport Infrastructure Ireland, looks at the development and demise of a previously unknown ringfort and cemetery complex, focusing on the period from AD 350 to 1650 and exploring its changing functions.

In the summer of 2015, archaeologists – working as part of routine pre-construction activity on the N61 Coolteige Road Project, an initiative of Roscommon County Council, funded by Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII) – commenced excavation of a previously unrecorded ringfort complex in the townland of Ranelagh, just north of Roscommon town.

Excavation by IAC Archaeology Ltd (IAC) revealed the Ranelagh site to be a simple, modestly sized defended farmstead which expanded considerably between about AD 350 and AD 1400, ultimately encompassing a livestock rearing and processing centre, a workshop for the manufacture of tools, weapons and jewellery, and a multi-generational cemetery.

Despite this, no visible trace of the site survived in the modern landscape, all folk memory and historical record had been lost, and its presence was entirely forgotten.

Excavation of ringfort and cemetery at Ranelagh
Excavation of ringfort and cemetery complex at Ranelagh, Co. Roscommon (source: Wordwell).

Ranelagh: AD 350–650

Following some very limited Neolithic and Bronze Age activity in the area (Phase 1), the second phase of activity occurred between AD 350–650 and saw the establishment of Ranelagh as a defended farmstead and cemetery. Its earliest enclosing element was a narrow and shallow ditch.

Animal rearing, cereal cultivation and processing, charcoal production, and antler-, iron- and copper-alloy-artefact manufacture were among the activities that took place during Phase 2. Thirty-seven burials (including two double burials) belong to this earliest burial phase at the site.

Ranelagh: AD 650–750

The construction of a substantial and highly defensive penannular ditch, named “Enclosure C”, characterizes Phase 3 activity (AD 650–750) at Ranelagh. All the activities from Phase 2 continued, including livestock rearing (where cattle continued to dominate), metalworking (represented in the archaeological record by smithing residues, iron and copper-alloy pins, blades, sheet metal, straps, nails, shanks, hammerstones and hone stones), cereal cultivation and cereal-drying.

Some 44 burials took place during this phase, including that of a young child buried with a fragment of bone from a wild bird and a polished antler burr.

Ranelagh ringfort, Roscommon
Artist’s impression of Phases 3 and 4 (AD 650–1000) of Ranelagh ringfort, Co. Roscommon (source: Wordwell).

Ranelagh: AD 750–1000

Phase 4 activity (AD 750–1000) at Ranelagh saw the modification of the enclosure ditch and the construction of features associated with light industrial activity, the largest of which were an earth-cut souterrain and two apparent metalworking structures.

Artefacts from these included a fragment from a flat-bottomed crucible or cupel with residues of silver, copper and iron, an iron penannular brooch, an iron blade, a copper-alloy ring brooch, “birds head” motif ringed pins of iron and copper alloy, and an iron ladle.

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In total, 203 burials belong to this period, including four double burials. An older adult male was buried with a copper-alloy toe ring on his right foot, and several sets of remains showed evidence of severe weapon trauma.

Ranelagh skeleton
Skeletal remains found at Ranelagh, Co. Roscommon (source: Wordwell).

Ranelagh: AD 1000–1150

Phase 5 activity at Ranelagh (AD 1000–1150) saw the contraction of the site generally but the continued expansion of the cemetery. The enclosure was defined by a narrow ditch and a low bank of earth and large stones. Artefacts indicate the continuation of metal-, glass- and bone-working. At least 14 individuals were buried during this period, including an adult male representing the final dated adult male from the Ranelagh site.

Ranelagh AD 1000–1150
Artist’s impression of Phase 5 activity at Ranelagh, Co. Roscommon, AD 1000–1150 (source: Wordwell).

Ranelagh: AD 1150–1410

Phase 6 at Ranelagh (AD 1150–1410) takes place after the enclosing ditches have been backfilled and have gone out of use. Activity in this phase appears sporadic and amounts to the construction and use of a keyhole-shaped cereal-drying kiln and the burial of 13 individuals.

Ranelagh: AD 1410–1650

Ranelagh’s slow decline into abandonment, and its reassimilation into an agricultural landscape, concluded during Phase 7 (AD 1410–1650). The interments of a newborn baby and an infant – both in shallow, earth-cut graves – constitute the entirety of burial activity at the site at this time.

Ranelagh: c.1708–present day

The site may have finally been erased from view during landscaping work associated with the establishment of a charter school initiated by Richard Jones, the 1st Earl of Ranelagh, in AD 1708.

By the time of the first Ordnance Survey in the area (1837–42), only a rectangular field system is recorded in the vicinity of the Ranelagh site. This repurposing of the land is supported by the excavation evidence.

>>> READ MORE: Excavations at Moylisha wedge tomb in Wicklow

Later mapping depicts the general area of Ranelagh townland as a well-organized landscape of parkland attached to Ranelagh House. The Ranelagh site was rediscovered and given a second life as part of the construction of the N61 Coolteige Road Project.

Excavation results

Using innovative post-excavation scientific analysis techniques, such as DNA and isotopic analysis, as well as more traditional interpretative methods, the excavation at Ranelagh has revealed a wealth of data regarding this community’s subsistence and farming activities, manufacturing capabilities, genetics, general health, treatment of the old and infirm, and funerary practices. The site has exposed the fundamental realities of life and death in Ireland over a period of 1,300 years.

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New publication

The Forgotten Cemetery: Excavations at Ranelagh, Co. Roscommon by excavation director Shane Delaney and Professor Eileen Murphy (QUB), and published by Wordwell Books in February 2023, is the latest entry in the TII Heritage Series. This series aims to showcase the results of TII-funded works relating to archaeological, architectural, cultural and natural heritage on national road and public transport projects.

The Forgotten Cemetery Excavations at Ranelagh, Co. Roscommon
The Forgotten Cemetery Excavations at Ranelagh, Co. Roscommon by Shane Delaney and Eileen Murphy, and published by Wordwell Books (source: Wordwell).

The lavishly illustrated 385-page book will be officially launched at the Abbey Hotel in Roscommon later this month. The Forgotten Cemetery can be purchased in all good bookshops and on the Wordwell website, where it is currently retailing at €25. It can also be read online for free here.

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