Posted on July 29, 2020



Human skeletal remains comprising two Bronze Age and eighteen Iron Age individuals from a previously unknown and unenclosed cemetery at Betaghstown, County Meath were examined for the National Museum of Ireland following archaeological excavations by Dr. Eamon Kelly in 1977 and 1979. The two primary burials dating to the Bronze Age were placed in a crouched position in a pit which was dug into the ground. The burials dating to the Iron Age and containing the remains of eighteen individuals were placed in extended positions in some graves and in crouched posiitons in others. Two of these individuals were located in slab-lined graves. Post-mortem processes following burial resulted in damage to the skeletal remains.

The analysis of the human skeletal remains shows that in both the Bronze Age and Iron Age these people had good general health. Most individuals suffered from poor oral hygiene. A small number endured work related denerative joint disease. The crowns of many teeth were worn by severe dental wear. Poor oral health was exacerbated by dental decay, dental abscesses (possibly a causative factor in one death), periodontal disease and deposits of calcified plaque or tartar. A number of combined factors probably contributed to the poor oral health status of these people, including diet and low resistance to infection. Calculus or tartar would have irritated the gingival wall of the tooth pockets and would have exascerbated periodontal disease. The unhealthy state of the dentitions showed that cleansing the teeth was not a popular task! Physiological stresses in early childhood are evident in the form of hypoplastic fault lines on the crowns of some teeth. Life was even tougher for some who also had degenerative joint disease. Survival beyond the age of thirty was rare.


The two Bronze Age individuals comprised the complete well-preserved skeleton of a male aged between sixteen to twenty years of age and the fragmentary poorly preserved remains of an adult aged at least thirty years of age.

These individuals displayed dental wear suggestive of the inclusion of large amounts of coarse breads in their diet. Similar amounts of occlusal wear was evident on the teeth from the Bronze Age individuals excavated by Kenneth Wiggins in 1983 and 1984. Wear was so severe that it affected the teeth of a four year old child.

Deposits of calculus around the necks of the teeth were mild, indicating that mild amounts of porridges or other soft foods such as milk products were also consumed. Fault lines in the teeth are a record of some nutritional deficiency or perhaps a childhood disease. The individuals at Rathlin Island also displayed hypoplastic defects which represented childhood illnesses or deficiencies during the age of three to seven years. Mild periodontitis is evident in one person from Rathlin Island but none were present in the subjects from Betaghstown.

Degenerative joint disease was evident in the two individuals. The older adult had suffered from strain to the left knee indicated by osteophyosis, a condition whereby excessive bony growth occurs in an effort to repair the joint. The young man displayed schmorl’s nodes on four of his lower vertebrae, probably caused by severe strain to the back heavy work during his teenage years.


At least eighteen individuals were examined: 39% were identified as adult male, 11% as adult female and 22% as children. It was not possible to determine the sex of the remaining adults (28%) due to the poor preservation of bone. The mean age at death for men was approximately 35.4 years while that for women was 27.5 years. The number of women represented in this group is small but it could be suggested that the hazards of childbirth were responsible for the lower average age in the women of this small demographic group. This is a common finding in past populations.

A number of comparisons could be made between the population of Betaghstown and that of a similar dated cemetery at Knowth, both in County Meath. At the latter four children and eleven adults were identified. It was possible to determine that four of the adults were female and four were male.

Mild degenerative joint disease in the form of osteoarthritis and osteophytosis was evident in four adult male at Betaghstown. The lumbar vertebrae are most commonly affected, indicating some physical stress resulting from a heavy workload. These adults had complete vertebral columns surviving post-mortem. Only fragments of vertebrae were present for five other individuals and so it is not possible to determine if degenerative joint disease was under-represented. The hip joints of one adult showed mild osteoarthritis. These conditions are age-related and are more severe in the older men. The small population group from the Iron Age at Knowth showed similar types of mild degenerative joint disease, primarily in the lumbar region of the back.

Dental attrition is the mechanical wearing down of the occlusal or biting surfaces of the teeth. This happens during the mastication of food. At Betaghstown it is present in the seventeen individuals with teeth. It is severe in 61% of these individuals, moderate in 28% and mild in one person (a child). Severe wear has resulted in pulp exposure in twelve teeth from four people. Secondary dentine occurs as a response to severe wear and protects the pulp. It is evident on twenty-four teeth in four individuals. Tough foods were indeed responsible for dental attrition in many past populations and coarse unrefined cereals probably contributed to a large part of the diet of the Iron Age people at Betaghstown. Gritty impurities from the grinding of corn with quern stones could also have added to the amounts of dental attrition. Similar levels of attrition evident at Betaghstown can also be seen in the individuals of the same date at Knowth. Postmortem damage was very obvious among the skeletal remains at Knowth, so a true representation of disease may not have been determined.

Calculus forms as a result of the calcification of plaque by the deposition of calcium salts. The consumption of large amounts of soft foods results in the deposition of plaque. In the Betaghstown individuals with teeth most had mild to moderate deposits of calculus. The findings from the human skeletal remains at Knowth were similar. From this evidence it can be suggested that small amounts of soft paps or porridges were consumed by both communities. Until the seventeenth century AD a large part of the Irish diet comprised the ‘white foods’ or ‘banbid’ consisting of cheese, milk and curds which would have lead to deposits of calculus adhering to the surfaces of the teeth. By the Iron Age in Ireland cattle husbandry would have been well established.

Dental caries is a localized process of decay resulting from bacterial action on the remains of food, especially carbohydrates, in the mouth, and resulting in the formation of a cavity. In this population group at Betaghstown 7.2% of all teeth are carious. Twenty-five cavities occur in 33% of individuals with teeth, 44% of these cavities occur in one person. The molars are the teeth which are most affected. The most frequent location is the cervical margin, the neck of the tooth. The root is the second most frequent location. Poor oral hygience would have exacerbated the presence of caries, as a result of stagnating food debris remaining around the necks of the teeth, and acids forming from the carbohydrates. Caries does not occur on the crowns of the teeth but this may be due to severe dental attrition wearing the carious cavity on the crown. Moderate amounts of carbohydrates such as cereals were included in the diet, as evidenced by the dental caries. Dental decay was only evident on one tooth at Knowth. A large number of teeth were lost postmortem from Knowth.

Periodontal disease, or more strictly chronic inflammatory periodontal disease, is an infection which leads to inflammation of the gum margin and subsequently the destruction of the supporting structures of the tooth resulting in the loosening of the tooth in the socket and its possible subsequent loss. Alveolar reduction is also part of periodontitis. Measurements were taken of alveolar bone loss which was present giving evidence for periodontitis in 28% of individuals. Eight teeth had been lost during life in two people, as a result of one or more of the dental conditions present in this community. Periodontal disease was probably due to a combination of factors, poor oral hygiene, a diet high in carbohydrates, individual resistance to infection and micro-organisms in the mouth. A periapical dental abscess was evident in one adult male. Infection took place when the pulp was exposed following severe wear of the crown. Secondary dentine formed in an attempt to protect the pulp of this tooth.

Indicators of the status of disease and nutritional stress were evident in the form of dental abnormalities called hypoplasias. These were present in 22% of individuals with teeth from Betaghstown. These faults are present in the crowns of teeth as lines, pitting, grooving and crinkling and represent episodes of illness or severe nutritional deficiencies which took place in these individuals most frequently between the age of four to five years. Childhood illness could have been the cause, though it is not known what type of childhood illnesses existed in prehistoric Ireland when these people lived. Diseases such as measles and chicken pox are thought to have their origin in historic times, though precursers of modern day diseases probably existed in Irish prehistory. Alternatively nutritional disturbances associated with weaning which takes place naturally between the age of two to four years, could be responsible for some of these dental faults. Changes in dietary culture such as the transition from a nomadic to sedentary lifestyle etc could have resulted in an inadequate diet.

Degenerative joint disease is related to repeated stresses and strains, such as those from manual labour. These diseases are also age-related. Affecting the spinal column most commonly, other joints can also be affected. Mild degenerative joint disease is evident in four males from Betaghstown. It occurs in all age groups but more commonly with the older ages of 35 to 40 years. The lumbar spine is most commonly involved and this could be attributed to lifting heavy loads, as builders or perhaps agricultural workers involved in bending frequently. Schmorl’s nodes occur in the the vertebrae of four adults indicating that herniation of the intervertebral discs occurred during their teenage years when they were subjected to exceptionally heavy workloads. One man has several Schmorl’s nodes.

The metopic suture is retained in the skulls of two individuals. This suture divides the frontal bone into two halves and usually disappears between the first and second years of life. Variations in dental morphology were recorded for all teeth. Tooth measurements of the crowns and roots were also taken.

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