Dead Man Talking: Death And Burial In Early Medieval Dundalk

Cemeteries were found at Balriggan and Faughart Lower, so how did early medieval Christians bury their dead?

The richest early medieval burials have stone slabs forming a rectangular box, complete with stone lid. A less expensive tomb was made by placing branches, logs or planks on top of carefully positioned large stones on either side of the body (typically paired at the head, hips and feet). A third method used smaller stones packed against thin wooden planks forming the walls and lid to a covered 'coffin box'. The graves would have been marked either with a large stone or a small cairn.

Cloak shrouds and prone burials
Bodies were buried fully clothed, wrapped in thick cloth, probably the cloak worn in daily life. Shrouding or cloak roll-wrapping is a standard ritual as seen through the skeleton posture of shoulders squeezed in towards the head.

Some cemeteries have a body buried face down. Such burials could actually be those that were unwrapped by pulling one side of the cloak. This unwrapping rolls the body over and the 'grave robber' gains a useful cloak!


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At both Balriggan and Faughart Lower there is likely to have been a chapel as well as human burial, crop processing, weaving, metalworking and livestock farming. These sites formed a focal point for outlying farms (smaller ringforts) and are similar to Early Medieval Ecclesiastic communities. However, it is more likely these sites were run by powerful families who were simply using the ecclesiastic model.

At Balriggan more than 50 people were buried in a small area, probably delimited by a hedge. At Faughart Lower a small 5th - 6th century AD cemetery soon filled up. A larger cemetery was felt to be so important that the whole site was actually enlarged to accommodate it. Over a period of around 500 years, at least 1000 people would have been buried at Faughart Lower.

Enduring folk memory
The Faughart Lower cemetery was lost, probably as the result of post-AD 1700 land redistribution. However, memory lingered on and human bones that occasionally turned up through ploughing were said to have come from the Battle of Faughart (AD 1318). There is no evidence that any of these burials relate to the Battle of Faughart.

ASI: Were people always buried where they died?
Sometimes a body is found in a tightly crouched position, with the knees drawn up to the chin. Medieval crouched burials were tied into this position so they could be easily transported over a long distance to the cemetery. During a period often swept by plagues, dead strangers were naturally treated with suspicion. If buried locally, they were consigned to unconsecrated ground. In such a world it was better for the family to bring the body home for a decent burial if they could.