Ballyhanna Research Project

In late 2003, on the route of the proposed N15 Bundoran–Ballyshannon Bypass, an archaeological excavation commenced at Ballyhanna, outside Ballyshannon, Co. Donegal, where test excavations a few months earlier had revealed the presence of human bone. The work carried out here over the next six months by Irish Archaeological Consultancy Ltd (under the direction of Brian Ó Donnchadha) led to the discovery of a substantial medieval cemetery containing more than 1,000 burials and the foundations of a stone building, thought to be the remains of Ballyhanna Church. Following the excavation it was clear that the large amount of skeletal material, with its excellent state of preservation, could provide a wealth of information on the lifestyle, diets and causes of illness and death within a medieval Irish population. Accordingly, a cross-border research team was established in 2006 with the aim of identifying the areas of scientific research that would glean the most information from the Ballyhanna material. The result of that collaboration was the Ballyhanna Research Project, funded by the NRA through Donegal County Council.

Ballyhanna Research Project

The project’s academic partners are Queen’s University, Belfast (QUB), and the Institute of Technology, Sligo (ITS). The QUB component of the project involves the osteological and palaeopathological analysis (the study of bones and ancient diseases) of the skeletal remains. Catriona McKenzie, under the supervision of Dr Eileen Murphy and Dr Colm Donnelly, undertook doctoral research on the adult skeletons from the site. Dr Murphy studied the skeletons of the children buried at Ballyhanna and along with Róisín McCarthy’s analysis of the disarticulated remains, a huge amount of osteoarchaeological data has been catalogued on the burials. In addition, Phillip McDonald and Naomi Carver of the Centre for Archaeological Fieldwork, QUB, have undertaken a reconstruction of the Ballyhanna burial sequence to show how the cemetery evolved over time.

Two additional doctoral research projects are based in ITS. Tasneem Bashir, under the supervision of Dr Ted McGowan, has been reconstructing the palaeodiet and environmental conditions of the cemetery population through analysis of trace elements (substances, such as iron, that cannot be resolved by chemical means into simpler substances) in a representative sample of male, female and child bones from Ballyhanna. Sheila Tierney, under the supervision of Dr Jeremy Bird, is attempting to extract and amplify ancient DNA from the human remains.

Ballyhanna Research Project

A forthcoming monograph will draw together all the various research strands to create a comprehensive overview of the graveyard and the life and times of those buried there. The following articles from Seanda magazine and papers from the proceedings of two NRA National Archaeology Seminars held in 2007 and 2010 provide further background and describe some of the results from the Ballyhanna Research Project. The publications are listed in chronological order and can be viewed by clicking on the individual titles.

MacDonagh, M 2006 ‘Ballyhanna Research Project’, Seanda, No. 1, 60–2.

Murphy, E & Donnelly, C 2006 ‘The Ballyhanna Research Project at Queen’s University, Belfast’, Seanda, No. 1, 63.

McGowan, T 2006 ‘Multi-element analysis of human bone’, Seanda, No. 1, 64.

Bird, J 2006 ‘Amplification of ancient DNA and sex determination in human medieval skeletal assemblages’, Seanda, No. 1, 65.

Leamy, G 2006 ‘Showcasing the finds’, Seanda, No. 1, 66.

Leamy, G 2007 ‘A forgotten site: Ballyhanna Church and Graveyard’, Seanda, No. 2, 8.

MacDonagh, M 2008 ‘The Ballyhanna Research Project: an introduction’, in J O’Sullivan & M Stanley (eds), Roads, Rediscovery and Research, 127–31. Archaeology and the National Roads Authority Monograph Series No. 5. National Roads Authority, Dublin.

McKenzie, C 2008 ‘An overview of the palaeopathological analyses of the medieval human remains from Ballyhanna, Co. Donegal’, in J O’Sullivan & M Stanley (eds), Roads, Rediscovery and Research, 133–42. Archaeology and the National Roads Authority Monograph Series No. 5. National Roads Authority, Dublin.

McCarthy, R 2008 ‘Preliminary osteoarchaeological analysis of the disarticulated human skeletal material from Ballyhanna, Co. Donegal’, in J O’Sullivan & M Stanley (eds), Roads, Rediscovery and Research, 143–8. Archaeology and the National Roads Authority Monograph Series No. 5. National Roads Authority, Dublin.

Tierney, S 2008 ‘Amplification of ancient DNA and determination of sex in medieval human skeletal material from Ballyhanna, Co. Donegal’, in J O’Sullivan & M Stanley (eds), Roads, Rediscovery and Research, 149–54. Archaeology and the National Roads Authority Monograph Series No. 5. National Roads Authority, Dublin.

Bashir, T & McGowan, T 2008 ‘Multi-elemental analysis of human bone from Ballyhanna, Co. Donegal’, in J O’Sullivan & M Stanley (eds), Roads, Rediscovery and Research, 155–61. Archaeology and the National Roads Authority Monograph Series No. 5. National Roads Authority, Dublin.

McCarthy, D, McKenzie, C, Murphy, E, Bashir, T & Tierney, S 2009 ‘Ballyhanna Research Project 2009 update’, Seanda, No. 4, 22–7.

McKenzie, C & Murphy, E 2011 ‘Health in medieval Ireland: the evidence from Ballyhanna, Co. Donegal’, in S Conran, E Danaher & M Stanley (eds), Past Times, Changing Fortunes, 131–43. Archaeology and the National Roads Authority Monograph Series No. 8. National Roads Authority, Dublin.