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Niamh Daly

Niamh Daly

Niamh Daly (PhD Candidate)

‘Til Death Do Us Part’: A bioarchaeological investigation of female kinship ties in Early Medieval Ireland

Supervisor: Dr. Barra Ó Donnabháin
Biological Anthropology and Bioarchaeology Research Group



What effects did the introduction of Christianity have on the position of women in early medieval Irish society? How do we reach the women of a patrilineal society, where the documentary record created by male clergy dominates the historical record? In this PhD research, I investigate the archaeological burial record to address these questions and examine the societal, cultural and ideological norms that structured female experience and treatment in early medieval Ireland. More specifically, I employ biogeochemical techniques, namely, stable isotopic analysis to examine the changing cultural pattern of female kinship ties in a complex kin-based system. As documented by both contemporary written sources (e.g annals, sagas, law tracts) and the rich archaeological record, society in Ireland was rural, hierarchical and patrilineal in nature. Principles of lineal kinship were essential to societal structures. In this patrilineal society, the position of women was complex. For instance, a woman did not sever her connections with her own kin group following marriage, thus had ties to two kindred groups: that of their father and their husband respectively. These dual allegiances structured the lives of early medieval Irish women, both in life and death.  Written documentary evidence in the early Irish law tracts seems to suggest that husband and wife should not be buried together in the same grave with the implication that each is buried in the grave of his or her kin group “paterno sepulchre”. Therefore, it is a contention of this research that these patterns related to burial practice can be detected in the archaeological record by addressing one particular hypothesis; that female burial patterns changed from one that centred on kinship alliances to burial with their marital spouse as the early medieval period progressed.

In doing so, a percentage of female and male burials from non-ecclesiastical fertas and cemetery-settlements contexts dating from c.400-1200AD from Co. Galway and Co. Kildare will be studied to address the following central research questions:

1) To what degree are the patterns of post-marital residence in early medieval Ireland as described in the law tracts visible in the archaeological record from fertas and cemetery settlement burial grounds?

2) Specifically, do stable isotopic techniques of tracing paleomobility confirm the rules regarding the burial place of women who married outside their home territory?

3) By examining the combined archaeological and historical evidence, to what extent can we examine the female experience in terms of broader ideological, cultural and societal systems as the early Irish medieval period progressed?

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