As It Happens

1,000-year-old skeleton found cradled in toppled tree's roots

A wind storm toppled a 200+ year old tree in Ireland, revealing an even older human skeleton intertwined in its roots.
Archeologist Thorsten Kahlert examines the roots of an upended Beech tree in north-west Ireland that contained human remains that could be almost 1,000 years old. (Marion Dowd)

It was an unexpected discovery. Last winter, violent windstorms upended trees in County Leitrim in northwest Ireland. And cradled in the roots of one tree were bones. Human bones. 

The enormous beech tree is roughly 215 years old, but still young compared to the remains it was clutching. Experts believe they could be almost 1,000 years old.

"It was a very unusual find," archaeologist Marion Dowd tells As It Happens' Carol Off. "We had half a human skeleton raised up in the air, entangled in the roots of the tree."

Archeologist Marion Dowd works on the excavation. (Thorsten Kahlert)

Dowd is the director of the Sligo-Leitrim Archaeological Services in Ireland, and she says the remains belong to a 17-20-year-old man. At 5'10", he was tall for the early-Medieval period, suggesting he came from a well-off family because he was well-fed. But he was also a labourer. The man suffered spinal injuries indicative of agricultural labour. But that's not what killed him. Dowd says he likely died a violent death. He suffered stab wounds to his chest, and another on his left hand.

"This was either a personal dispute, or rivalries between different Gaelic regions," she speculates. 

This was a very unusual find.- Archaeologist Marion Dowd

​Dowd says the top half of the young man's remains, which were entangled in the roots, were in very poor condition. But the bottom half, which stayed in the ground, were remarkably intact. She adds he was given a proper Christian burial, but she doesn't know why that particular burial spot was chosen.

"That's part of the mystery because there was no indication of a grave there previously," Dowd says, adding that there was no marker, and no other signs of graves or an ancient cemetery nearby. Dowd says further research will be needed to determine why the young man was buried in that particular spot. 

The giant beech tree was planted on top of the grave centuries later.

The lower part of the skeleton was undisturbed by the tree's roots and stayed in the underlying grave. (Thorsten Kahlert)

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