The bioarchaeology of Early Bronze Age Ireland: health, disease, trauma, and care

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Robinson, Stephanie Ann
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University College Cork
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Human remains have been reported from Early Bronze Age contexts in Ireland since the 19th century. With a relative lack of settlement sites, the mortuary contexts of the Early Bronze Age in Ireland have been the focus for many studies, especially those interested in social structure and status. Despite this importance of funerary contexts, there has been very little detailed study of the human remains recovered from these graves and what analysis has been completed is found almost exclusively in site reports and demographic tables. This study addressed this underuse of a key recourse by undertaking the first integrated bioarchaeological analysis of the entire corpus of curated inhumations from the Early Bronze Age in Ireland. Additionally, two main methodological frameworks were used in this study: population health and the Bioarchaeology of Care. Reassessment of the demographics of the assemblage supported the identification of the Individualised Burial Tradition as a restricted formal burial tradition influenced by both gender and age ideology. However, the identification of changes in the impact of gender ideology across the life course in qualification for formal burial suggest that constructions of status were likely more complex than some previous models have proposed. The population health analysis was undertaken using the Biological Index of Frailty approach which identified comparatively low levels of frailty within the sample of the Early Bronze Age population. There were no statistical differences in average frailty scores based on sex or burial attributes, suggesting that variations in status were unlikely to have had a significant impact on health. During skeletal analysis, three individuals were identified with bony changes which would have impacted their ability to participate in Early Bronze Age lifeways. Bioarchaeology of Care analyses explored these examples of healthcare provisioning within the context of degenerative, congenital, traumatic, and terminal disease processes. The identification of evidence for healthcare provisioning suggests that the requirement for care did not disqualify individuals from formal burial during the period, and that this care included both physical and emotional elements. This is paralleled by the noticeably low trauma rate in the assemblage, with no convincing evidence of interpersonal violence. This suggests either a low frequency of such violence in Early Bronze Age society or that death in such circumstances may have resulted in an archaeologically invisible burial rite. The results of this bioarchaeological analysis is compatible with a reconstruction of a relatively stable society, with individuals who merited burial living relatively healthy lives with a low risk of violence. Social structure seems to have included elements of age and gender ideology, however the impact of these were not consistent across the life course. This study has allowed for a deeper and more nuanced understanding of how social relations, organisation, practice, and identity in the Early Bronze Age, and how these factors impacted and shaped the lives of those who lived through this period of Irish prehistory.
Bioarchaeology , Irish Prehistory , Early Bronze Age , Population health , Bioarchaeology of care
Robinson, S. A. 2023. The bioarchaeology of Early Bronze Age Ireland: health, disease, trauma, and care. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.
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