Trees toppled by stormy weather are a fairly common occurrence across Ireland. But when people saw what was unearthed by this uprooted tree, they had to call in a group of scientists to explain it.
Beech trees are not native to Ireland, but they were introduced in relatively recent history. The most famous beech trees in the country are, of course, the so-called Dark Hedges of Northern Ireland – a group of trees that create an awe-inspiring sight as their branches intertwine over a rural road.
Indeed, the Dark Hedges notably featured in the hit TV series Game of Thrones. They provided the backdrop for Arya Stark and Gendry’s travels on the King’s Road, in the first episode of the show’s second season.
But in September of 2015 a completely different Irish beech tree rose to prominence. This fallen tree was discovered in Collooney, a small town with a rich history on the northwest coast of the island.
However, this particular tree was actually toppled months before as a result of severe storms. Such gales can bring rain, snow and flooding, and they are able to generate winds with speeds of up to 100 miles per hour.
But the toppled 215-year-old giant did not attract any attention for many months. At least, not until someone made the eerie discovery of what was ensnarled in the tree’s exposed root system.
A team of archeologists were dispatched to investigate the strange finding. And the Sligo-Leitrim Archaeological Services (SLAS) scientists who arrived on the scene immediately realized what they were dealing with.
The morbid discovery was that of a human skeleton split in half by the tree’s upheaval. Indeed, while the torso, arm and skull were trapped in the tree’s exposed roots, the remains of the lower body were still in the ground.
As archeologist Dr. Marion Dowd deduced, the tree must have pulled apart the skeleton that lay beneath it when the stormy weather brought the tree down. She also noted that some of the bones had actually been destroyed by the movement of the tree’s roots.
After confirming that the remains were those of a man approximately 17 to 20 years old, the archeologists used carbon dating to calculate when he died. Carbon-14 – a radioactive isotope of carbon – enables scientists to date the age of organic material because it decays at a known pace.
When the results came back, though, the archeologists were astonished to discover that the skeleton dated to some point between 1030 and 1200 CE. This young medieval man, then, died nearly 1,000 years ago.
The team estimated that the man was about five-foot-ten in height, and judging from the wear in his joints, he must have worked a physically demanding job. Furthermore, while the man’s height may seem average in today’s world, it was much taller than the five-foot-five average that was typical for men of his era.
But the amazing discovery was only beginning to unravel its secrets. After examining the bones in detail, the scientists also found evidence of physical trauma. Most notably, the skeleton had slashes on the ribs and the hand.
This evidence led the archeologists to suggest that the damage was done with a knife; the man clearly did not die of natural causes. Moreover, the team reasoned that the wounds implied this man was attempting to escape from his assailant.
The two leading theories were that the mystery man had perished in armed combat or as a result of a private argument. Neither possibility would be much of a surprise in medieval Europe, where life was short and hard for everyone save the nobility.
Whoever planted this tree at the start of the 19th century must have had no idea of what was underneath, the scientists reasoned. Yet it was the planter or planters’ actions that ultimately allowed this little piece of history to have been unearthed over 200 years later.
However, the archeological magic still wasn’t finished. Indeed, judging from the fact that the man was “placed in a grave in an east-west position, hands folded over pelvix region,” the scientists determined that he had been given a Christian burial.
This suggests that family members or locals who had known the man gave him a formal burial. Better yet, the finding also hinted at the possibility of other graves in the same general area.
In fact, historical records from the 19th century indicate that this particular location had a church and a graveyard in medieval times. And while investigations have not found any other archeological sites in the area, the discovery of this grave certainly gives hope that there are more buried historical artifacts waiting to be uncovered in the vicinity.
For now, though, the bones are to find a more permanent resting place at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin.
In conclusion, aside from giving us a brief glimpse into medieval life, this finding is a great reminder of how much history can be hiding just inches under our feet.