Wednesday 16 October 2019

'Some Famine victims were from better off backgrounds'

The skeletons of Famine victims placed in mass graves. Academic Dr Jonny Geber says he feels a responsibility to tell their stories so that ‘they will not be forgotten’
The skeletons of Famine victims placed in mass graves. Academic Dr Jonny Geber says he feels a responsibility to tell their stories so that ‘they will not be forgotten’

Alan O'Keeffe

Tartar on the teeth of Irish famine victims has revealed differences in the foods some had eaten during their lives.

New scientific tests were carried out on the teeth of victims whose skeletons were found in unmarked burial pits in Kilkenny 13 years ago.

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A surprising find in the scientific analysis revealed some of the Famine victims had access to eggs, seen as a luxury food among the poor, during their lives, said archaeologist Dr Jonny Geber.

Dr Geber is one of the speakers at the Revealing The Past seminar at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin on Thursday.

He has published many academic works on the skeletons of 970 people found in mass graves of the old workhouse in Kilkenny city.

The remains were discovered by Kilkenny Archaeology in 2006, when the land was being prepared for a new shopping centre.

A team of experts, including Dr Geber, analysed the dental calculus, or tartar, on the teeth of some of the skeletons.

The findings of the new study will be presented at the seminar which will cover several archaeological projects carried out around Ireland through grants administered by the Royal Irish Academy.

New scientific techniques examining tiny particles on the teeth of the victims showed the dominance of a type of corn known as Indian meal served in the workhouse.

It had inferior nutritional value and was improperly cooked, which had a negative effect on people already weakened and frail.

The Poor Law stipulated that the workhouse diet must be intentionally dire.

Starch granules also revealed the presence of other crops.

Dietary proteins were also examined.

Evidence of egg consumption showed some of the people who died in the workhouse may once have been considered relatively better off.

"The egg protein surprised us," said Dr Geber, who said eggs usually were not eaten by the labouring classes but were sold to earn a livelihood.

The workhouse in Kilkenny was built to house 1,300 people but more than 4,000 people were crammed into the building at times. The Famine lasted from 1845 to 1849. The inmates mainly died from typhus, typhoid fever, cholera and tuberculosis.

More than half of the victims were children.

The poorest were among the first to die in the workhouse, followed by those who once lived less desperate lives.

During the Famine years, profits continued to be made from large amounts of wheat, eggs, meat and other foods produced in the region being exported to markets in England. The disaster of the Famine was not induced by the lack of food but by the lack of access to food.

Records identifying the dead no longer exist. The 970 skeletons were reburied in the Kilkenny Famine Memorial Garden.

Dr Geber, who lectures in human osteoarchaeology at the University of Edinburgh, said he felt "a huge responsibility" to try to tell the stories of the people whose remains he examined so that "they would not be forgotten".

The seminar will also deal with several other projects.

Dr Alan Hawkes will speak of excavations he has led in recent years on a hill which overlooks Baltinglass in Co Wicklow.

He said there is a huge enclosure on the hilltop covering 10 hectares, the biggest structure of its kind in Ireland. There are two late Bronze Age forts from around 1200BC to 800BC but a third fort at a higher point on the hill was surprisingly from the Neolithic era, dating from 3600BC.

Ramparts were three metres high and 12 metres thick and there was evidence of an oak palisade which had burned down.

A polished stone axe-head and flint scrapers used to skin animal carcasses were found at the site.

Dr Geraldine Stout, of the National Monuments Service, will speak of her excavations at Newgrange Farm, including a structure thought to be a ceremonial route likely to have been used more than 4,000 years ago.

The biennial seminar on Thursday will present a selection of recent discoveries from archaeological excavation and related research funded by the National Monuments Service, and from radiocarbon dating research funded by Queen's University Belfast, through grants administered by the Royal Irish Academy's Standing Committee for Archaeology.

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