Posted on June 26, 2020


matthew kelly the Burren


During my work on the examination of human skeletal remains from archaeological sites in Ireland there were a small number of my reports which never got published in their entirety. Reports on all of the human skeletal remains which I examined were given to the body responsible for their curation such as the National Museum of Ireland, the Ulster Museum, the Departments of the Environment in Ireland and in the North of Ireland, the National University of Ireland and Queen’s University, Belfast and the relevant archaeologists who were responsible for the excavations. I have now decided rather than have those unpublished reports lying in my paper archive that I will address this issue myself.

The assemblages which I examined and will be added here include Betaghstown, County Meath, both Bronze Age and Iron Age,  Knowth, County Meath, Iron Age (Neolithic cremated remains have been published, C. Power and others); Fourknocks I and II, County Meath (Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age);  Linkardstown, County Carlow (Neolithic), Poulawack,  County Clare (Neolithic); Norrismount, County Wexford (Neolithic); Ballintruer More, County Wicklow (Neolithic); Jerpoint West, County Kilkenny (Neolithic); Baunogenesraid, County Carlow (Neolithic) and many more.

The first one of these reports which I am putting in this blog is a (summarized) dental report which I completed in 1990. The full report contains a tooth by tooth analysis, with drawings of each tooth, measurements of each tooth, descriptions of morphology, pathologies such as hypoplasias, abscesses,  periodontitis, calculus, attrition, etc.  It concerns the portal dolmen of Poulnabrone on the Burren in County Clare.  Some of my research on these  human remains is already published as the following: Power, C. 1993 ‘Reconstructing patterns of health and dietary change in prehistoric skeletal remains from Ireland’ Ulster Journal of Archaeology, 56, 9-17.


The dental remains examined from Poulnabone represent a mixed demographic group with all age groups included. This population has a generally good state of dental health. The presence of deposits of calculus indicates a lack of oral hygiene as well as the inclusion of soft foods, such as milk products or paps in the diet. The mild degree of wear and the absence of dental caries would seem to indicate a diet low in cereal grains but containing other plant remains and perhaps a moderate to high meat content. The diet was also low in sugars. Many of the dental hypoplasias may have occurred during the weaning period, at a time of cultural change, when the child was subject to inadequate adjustment in the diet and any resulting illness. Childhood illnesses probably resulted in some developmental disturbances. Abscess cavities indicate some members of the community suffered from infection, pain and no doubt halitosis. There is much post-mortem loss of alveolar bone and therefore pathologies such as periodontitis, abscess cavities and calculus may be under-represented.  Many morphological variations were recorded for each tooth in this assemblage, including the presence of interradicular enamel extensions and shovel-shaped incisors, and the absence of  cusps of carabelli.


A pooled collection of 690 teeth from the burials in the portal dolmen from Poulnabrone were presented to me for examination. Fragments of alveolar bone from the maxillary and mandibular jaws were present for a small number of individuals. These dental remains were part of an excavated assemblage of human remains which were buried in the tomb. A minimum number of thirty-three individuals was present. These are from seventeen adults (aged over sixteen years), and sixteen children (aged under ten years). This estimate was achieved by the presence of twenty-seven upper lateral permanent incisors and eleven lower left first deciduous molars; it was assumed that another five (immature) incisors belonged to the owners of five lower left first deciduous molars.

A total of 139 (20% of teeth present) teeth belong to children under the age of twelve years. Of these 9% are immature permanent teeth and 11% are deciduous or milk teeth.  These estimates were achieved from the presence of twenty-seven maxillary right lateral permanent incisors and eleven mandibular left first deciduous molars.

Regarding individualisation, a minimum of eighteen individuals were identified. The  right half of the mandible or almost complete mandibles were used for individualisation  of the adults while the left half of the mandible or complete mandibles were used for individualisation of children. There were twelve adults and four children. The maxillae of a sixteen year old was also present. It was not possible to determine the sex of these individuals from mandibles alone, although most appear to have a muscular appearance.

The age of the adults was estimated by the comparison of the rate of wear on the molar teeth. Of the twelve adults nine (75%) are aged between thirty to forty years, two (17%)  are aged at least fifty to sixty years (and may be much older), and one is aged in the late twenties. Three of the children are aged between six to eight years and one is aged between two to three years.

Attrition is the wearing of tooth substance. There are many causes but in particular tooth-to-tooth contact and the mastication of foodstuffs. Attrition is related to culture and diet. The diets of different populations vary considerably in abrasive quality. Occlusal attrition is evident on 79% of the teeth (n. 543). The remaining 21% represent unerupted teeth or those damaged post-mortem. Most of these teeth are affected by mild wear, where attrition is confined to the enamel, or dentine may be exposed at the incisal edges or one or two islands of dentine may be exposed on the cusps. Moderate wear occurs on 14% of individuals with attrition, where three or more islands of dentine may have been exposed or two or more islands of dentine have coalesced. Severe wear, which involves secondary dentine formation, or pulp exposure, was evident on 5.9% of teeth with attrition. Of the deciduous or milk teeth with wear 6.3% have mild and 18% have moderate attrition. Severe wear is absent from the deciduous teeth.

Severe wear is found also in the teeth of the Neolithic/Early Bronze Age teeth from Fourknocks, County Meath. Attrition was so severe that a number of dentitions had complete crown loss and others had the formation of secondary dentine.

Calculus or tartar is a deposit of calcified plaque which is attached to the teeth. It results from the accumulation of stagnant food debris around the teeth. Deposits of calculus are evident on 31% of teeth (n. 215), 97% are mild deposits, 0.9% are moderate, 0.9% are severe and 1.4% are gross deposits. Similar findings come from other Irish prehistoric populations examined by the author where mild deposits are extensive, including those at Fourknocks.

Dental hypoplasia is an indicator of nutritional and or/pathological stress which is recorded on the dental enamel at the time of its formation i.e during childhood. Hypoplastic defects occur on forty-one teeth (5.9%) including one milk tooth. These occur mainly on the lower half or one third of the permanent mandibular canines (27%) and secondly on the permanent maxillary canines (22%). The locations of these lesions indicate that they occurred most frequently between the age of four to six or seven years. Single grooves (49%) are the most common type of defect  and these would represent one illness of short duration such as fevers (diseases such as measles and scarlet fever may not have been present or existed in prehistoric Ireland, though it is likely that other fevers did; children and adults with hypoplasias represent the strong individuals in the population who survived disease and malnutrition; it is likely that fifty per cent of the children aged under one year died in prehistoric and historic times, pre 1950 AD). Faint grooves or lines  are the second most common type of defect (27%) and these were probably caused by recurring illnesses or periods of malnutrition. In other prehistoric populations examined by the author four to five years of age was  a common time of occurrence of hypoplasias (Iron Age at Betaghstown, County Meath) while they commonly occurred from the age of two to four years in the Early Medieval population at Cathedral Hill, County Down.

In both ethnographic and prehistoric populations from around the world the greatest incidences of hypoplasias peak at about the age of four years and these are generally thought to occur at about the time of weaning. The most common time for natural weaning to occur is between two to four years of age.  Socioeconomic circumstances have been shown to play an important role in the incidence of hypoplastic defects. Examples of stress include weaning, lifestyle changes such as the transition from hunter-gathering to agriculture, or where there is a higher dependence on agriculture. It is extremely difficult to determine which, if any disease or nutritional deficiency was responsible for the enamel hypoplasias in the population at Poulnabrone. Nonetheless these defects provide time-specific information. 

Caries, or dental decay, is absent from the Poulnabrone teeth. The caries incidence in other Irish prehistoric teeth examined by the author is low. Caries was also absent from a total of 254 teeth from Fourknocks, County Meath, dating to the Late Neolithic. Caries was present in 4.2% of teeth  from the Early Bronze Age dental remains from Fourknocks, County Meath, and in 7.2% of the teeth from the Iron Age/Early Medieval period at Betaghstown, County Meath. The individuals with carious teeth from the Early Bronze Age at Fourknocks also had associated dental abscesses as a direct result of the infection of the tooth’s pulp by caries. Diets low in meat content have fewer caries incidences than that of a mixed diet comprising an increase in cereal carbohydrates, rather than in all carbohydrates. Severe wear obliterates any bacteria or location for bacteria to form on the biting surface of the crown, so dental caries would be absent on such a location.

Periodontal disease starts as an inflammation of the gum margin, which leads to the progressive destruction of the crests of the sockets and to the formation of pockets between the tooth and the gum, and the subsequent  exfoliation of the tooth. After the loss of the tooth bone repair involves resorption of the alveolus, or bony structure in which the teeth are located. Dental plaque provides a micro-environment conducive to the onset of periodontal disease. The early stages of this disease are evident in one individual. Periodontal disease is a common disease in modern populations, in particular in adults aged over thirty years.

Five teeth, mainly premolars were lost during the lifetime of these individuals, probably as a result of periodontal disease, or severe attrition or trauma. In skeletal populations it is not always possible to determine which of these was responsible for tooth loss.

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