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A Taphonomic Analysis of Faunal Remains from Site E-132, Dysert O'Dea, Co. Clare, Ireland

Maura A. Smale
New York University

Paper Presented at the 61st Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, New Orleans, Louisiana, April 10-14, 1996

Dysert O'Dea is a tower house or small castle located just south of Corofin, Co. Clare, Ireland (Figure 1). According to historical records, the tower house was built around 1480 A. D.; it has been renovated and currently serves as a museum and interpretive center for the archaeological remains of the area. Site E-132, as designated by the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, consists of the foundations of a structure adjacent to the tower house (Figure 2).

The first season of excavation of site E-132 was in the summer of 1995. The excavation was directed by Dr. D. Blair Gibson of the University of California at Los Angeles and Mr. Risteard Ua Croinin, Director of the Dysert Castle and Archaeology Centre. Funding for this excavation was provided by the University Research and Expedition Program, at the University of California at Berkeley, and the excavation was staffed by volunteers from both the United States and Ireland. The main goals of this excavation are to determine the uses to which this structure was put, and the time period it was in use. The excavation directors had hoped that the structure would be of medieval date, possibly an early or "proto" tower house used before the construction of the now-renovated tower.

The 1995 field season focused on the northwest portion of the site, which was raised about 1.5 meters above both the surrounding ground surface and the rest of the structure before excavation. The foundations of the structure are roughly rectangular in shape, with dimensions of approximately 14.5 meters by 8.5 meters. These dimensions are actually larger in size than those of the tower house. Last summer's excavation revealed that the structure had been built up against what appears to be a previously extant enclosure wall of about two meters in thickness. This wall may be a remnant of the bawn wall, the enclosure wall around a castle, which originally surrounded the tower house, some of which is still extant today. If so, this would indicate that the structure was built at some point after 1480 A. D., subsequent to the construction of the tower house. Although the charcoal samples from the excavated portions of the site have not yet been radiocarbon dated, there is information regarding the ages of the excavated areas to be gleaned from the excavated features, artifacts, and faunal remains.

One of the more interesting features revealed during excavation which indicates extensive reuse of Site E-132 is a lime kiln built in the middle of the northwest part of the site, possibly reusing a circular area in the original structure (Figure 3). The surfaces of the stones lining the kiln were burnt white, and lime was found throughout the sediment in the body of the kiln. Although it has fallen in on itself since it went out of use, this kiln appears to have been fairly massive, with the body contained in unit five and the foundations extending into the surrounding units. Lime kilns were used to burn limestone in order to extract lime, which could then be used to fertilize the fields, a practice which became widely adopted in Ireland in the seventeenth century A. D. (MacLysaght 1979:170-171). It is possible that the blocks of limestone which made up the original structure were burnt in the kiln (D. Blair Gibson 1996:16). There was a large deposit consisting of both lime and charcoal found at the bottom of the kiln after the sediment had been cleared out. In addition, there was a large spread of charcoal extending out from the flue of the kiln and into the adjoining units.

In this paper I focus on the faunal remains from units five and seven, the units which encompass the body and cavity of the lime kiln and the outer opening of the flue of the lime kiln, respectively. Out of the approximately four thousand bone fragments recovered from the 1995 excavation, roughly 30% were recovered from these two units alone. While these numbers do reflect well on the persistence and good eyesight of our volunteers, they also are directly related to the existence of the lime kiln and flue in these two excavation units. My initial hypothesis was that the lime kiln, which had presented a gaping hole after it went out of use, had then been used as a receptacle for garbage by the inhabitants of the area. A taphonomic analysis was conducted in order to test this hypothesis and explain the high concentration of faunal remains found in these two units.

Site E-132 was excavated in two by two meter units, using trowels and following the natural soil levels. As there was ample water on site, all of the excavated sediment was wet screened through one-eighth inch mesh. Units five and seven produced 1197 bone fragments, of which 629 were minimally identifiable to genus or species (Figure 4). The interior of the lime kiln contained in unit five produced a denser concentration of bones than all other areas of the site excavated last season. The fragment count for unit five is 532, and the MNI is 32. Unit seven produced fewer bones, both in terms of identifiable fragments as well as MNI, with a total NISP of 97 and MNI of 18 (Figure 5). Although there does appear to have been some movement of bones from the interior of the lime kiln in unit five through the flue into unit seven, which probably occurred during the infilling of the lime kiln with sediment, the majority of the identified bones from the large domesticated animals were recovered from the inside of the lime kiln itself.

Ten taxonomic categories are used to describe this faunal assemblage. This faunal assemblage was identified with the assistance of the skeletal collections of the Departments of Mammalogy and Herpetology at the American Museum of Natural History, and the Departments of Anthropology and Biology at New York University. I was able to identify most of the bones from the domesticated animals to the species level. However, some of the bones from the small animals were only identified to the genus level or even higher. In most cases there are only two species to choose from, since Ireland is an island on the edge of a continent and consequently has a relatively impoverished fauna. The large domesticates, including cow (B. taurus), pig (S. scrofa), and sheep/goat (O. aries and C. hircus), were all introduced into Ireland during the Neolithic, around 3500 B.C. (Davis 1987:177). The domesticated cat (F. domesticus) was introduced to Ireland in the first centuries A.D. (Davis 1987:177). I use the term lagomorph for both rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus), brought to Ireland in the 13th century A.D., and the two species of hare found in Ireland, including Lepus timidus, native to Ireland since the Mesolithic period, and Lepus capensis, introduced to Ireland in 1850 A.D. (Van Den Brink 1967:75-79, Davis 1987:177). Two species of squirrel are found in Ireland, Sciurius vulgaris and Sciurius carolinensis; the latter was introduced into Ireland in the late 19th century (Van Den Brink 1967:81-83, Davis 1987:177). Both species of rat, Rattus rattus and Rattus norvegicus, were accidentally introduced into Ireland, the former at some point before the Norman invasion at the end of the 12th century A.D., and the latter in 1722 A.D. (Davis 1987:177). Also an accidental introduction was Mus musculus in the first century A.D. (Davis 1987:177); the field mouse or Apodemus sylvaticus is also found in Ireland (Burton 1976:). I use two amphibian categories, a frog/toad category encompassing Rana temporania and Bufo calamita, and a frog category for R. temporania only (Arnold and Burton 1978:257). Due to the difficulty I encountered in locating a comparative skeleton of the correct species of frog, I could only identify most bones to the frog/toad category. The exceptions to this are the illia, which are easily identifiable to the genus level and are all identifiable as R. temporania. Although it is highly likely that the other amphibian bones represent the remains of R. temporania, I have chosen to assign them to the frog/toad category so as not to make unwarranted assumptions. Finally, 44 bird bones were recovered from units five and seven, but these have not yet been identified to a finer taxonomic level.

Faunal remains are not usually good temporal indicators, but one of the bones from unit five can be used as a chronological marker. This is also the only bone from the lime kiln which shows any evidence of human modification for subsistence purposes. A left sheep radius was found which exhibits very little evidence of weathering. The distal end exhibits the characteristic marks of butchery with a metal saw. This indicates a post-medieval date, since metal saws were not used for butchery in Ireland until after the medieval period (Pam J. Crabtree, personal communication). In addition, very modern looking ceramics were found at the base of the inside of the lime kiln. Therefore it seems as if the lime kiln fell out of use and began to disintegrate and fill with sediment no earlier than the beginning of the post-medieval period.

However, I do not believe that the primary agent of deposition of this particular sheep radius in the lime kiln was human. The proximal end of this sheep radius has been almost completely gnawed away. The agent responsible for the gnawing of this bone was probably a carnivore, and most likely a domestic dog. It seems equally likely then that the agent responsible for gnawing this bone was also responsible for transporting it to the lime kiln and depositing it there. Therefore, it seems unlikely that this sheep radius represents human subsistence activities in the lime kiln on this site.

One of the more interesting aspects of the fauna recovered from these two units is the large disparity between the numbers of bones recovered from the large domesticated food animals: cow, sheep/goat, and pig (Figure 6). This is visible most dramatically in the NISP, with 297 pig bones recovered as opposed to only 4 cow bones and 5 sheep/goat bones. The MNI shows a difference as well although not quite as dramatic, with one individual each for cow and sheep/goat and two for pig. Although the numbers are not yet available this pattern seems to hold true for the faunal remains recovered from the rest of the site as well. This is an interesting difference given that the Irish historical literature places much more emphasis on the exploitation of cattle than pigs as food animals. However, these data as well as data presented below seem to indicate that the cow, sheep/goat, and pig bones recovered from units five and seven do not necessarily represent the remains of human subsistence activities.

The most spectacular faunal material recovered from these two units is the nearly complete skeleton of a young female pig, some of which was still articulated. Although there is an MNI of two for pigs for these units, the second pig is represented by only 8 bones, suggesting that the vast majority of these bones were from the same animal. The state of fusion of the bones indicates that this pig was fairly young at the time of its death, between one and a half and two years old (Schmid 1972:75). This skeleton is remarkable in its completeness, and is missing only a few of the larger bones, such as the left half of the pelvis, as well as some smaller limb bones. The skeleton also has suffered no visible trauma, whether as the result of being killed by either humans or animals, or as a result of falling into the lime kiln. There are no signs of butchery or burning on these bones, which suggests that it is highly unlikely that the pig represents food refuse. It is possible that the pig was diseased and killed by its owner and dumped into the lime kiln. However, that seems unlikely since there is no evidence of the trauma which usually results from an animal being killed by a human, such as bullet holes or shattered frontal bones. A more likely scenario is that the pig could have been dumped into the kiln by its owners after its death from disease, or that the pig fell into the lime kiln and, once in there, died, possibly from exposure or starvation.

Also recovered from units five and seven was the nearly complete skeleton of a domesticated cat. There is a NISP of 137 and an MNI of 2 for the cat bones recovered from these units. As with the pig bones, it seems likely that the majority of the cat bones are indeed from one animal, since the second cat is represented by only 5 bones. Fusion of the skeletal elements was complete for these bones, so this cat had reached adulthood. There appear to be two healed fractures on the midshafts of two of the ribs from this animal. However, since the fractures have healed, this trauma was probably not the cause of death for this cat. There are no other signs of trauma on the bones of this cat, and it seems likely that the cat also fell into the lime kiln and died there, or perhaps it was dumped there by the inhabitants of the area after its death.

There were rat and mouse bones recovered from these units, as well as the bones of lagomorphs and one lone squirrel bone, but they were not nearly as numerous as the cat and pig bones recovered from these units. There is no evidence that any of these animals were used by humans as food, since there is no evidence on the bones of butchery or burning, activities associated with human subsistence and disposal practices. Moreover, since these are all wild animals, it is likely that their presence in the lime kiln and flue is an entirely natural occurrence.

One feature of the lime kiln which was surmised before excavation even commenced was the existence of a rat's nest within the flue of the kiln. This nest was first discovered by Bruno, Mr. Ua Croinin's dog, during the removal of sod from the site prior to excavation. After shooing Bruno away from the small hole in what we later discovered was the flue of the lime kiln, we saw a small rat exit the hole. When we had finally excavated down to the level of the flue the rat's nest was readily apparent, as there were masses of shredded plastic and other modern garbage. This explains the presence of the small rodent bones found during this excavation, as these animals presumably lived in this nest in the flue until it was destroyed by our excavation.

In addition there were many frog and frog/toad bones found in both units five and seven, again concentrated mainly around the flue. In terms of MNI these were the most numerous types of animals found in these units. It is likely that neither the small mammal bones nor the frog and frog/toad bones represent the remains of human subsistence activities. These bones are all fairly complete and from all parts of the skeleton. Also, frogs were often seen (and often almost killed by the boots of our excavation staff) around the site during the excavation. The presence of these amphibian bones is most likely the result of the small opening in the flue of the lime kiln. This opening may have served as a natural trap for these small animals, which could account for the large numbers of their bones found during the excavation.

Although the construction of the lime kiln within the structure of Site E-132 was obviously a human activity, it does not seem likely that the inhabitants of the area around the site were responsible for the large number of faunal remains which have accumulated since the kiln went out of use. Apart from the one sheep radius, the large domesticated mammal remains show no signs of butchery or extensive breakage which is often associated with the exploitation of animal bones by humans for subsistence purposes. Only 7% of all of the bones recovered from units five and seven were fragmented to the extent that less that 3/4 of a skeletal element is present. This low fragmentation rate suggests that the bones from these units were not being extensively broken or cut up for subsistence purposes. The fragmentation that is seen is most likely a natural result of having been buried under the sediment and stones within the lime kiln. In addition, the presence of nearly the entire skeleton of one pig suggests that its presence in the lime kiln is a natural occurrence. Finally, there were no identifiable burnt bones found in these two units, which one might expect if these remains represented human food refuse.

The NISP and MNI data for the faunal remains from all of the taxa found in these two units support this hypothesis (Figure 7). Pig and cat respectively represent the largest number of identifiable fragments of all taxa found in these units; however, they each have an MNI of two, reflecting the discovery of nearly an entire skeleton of each animal. The other traditional large food mammals, cow and sheep/goat, are represented by both small NISP and MNI counts, with a NISP of four and an MNI of one for cows and a NISP of five and an MNI of one for sheep/goats. However, frog and frog/toad remains are numerous with both NISP and MNI counts, and represent the largest number of individual animals of any taxa found in these units, with an MNI for frogs of seventeen. These amphibian bones were probably not the result of human subsistence activities, and suggest that the majority of faunal remains from the lime kiln and flue were the result of natural accumulation rather than human agency.

The generally good condition of the faunal remains from the lime kiln suggests that the natural infilling of this feature was a fairly rapid process. Only 1.6% of the total number of bone fragments recovered from these units could be assigned to a weathering stage of 2 or 3, as detailed in Behrensmeyer 1978 (151); the remainder of the bones were all at weathering stage 0 or 1. Although the conditions under which Behrensmeyer performed her weathering experiments are different from the conditions in Ireland, these data do suggest that the faunal remains from units five and seven were probably not subjected to long periods of exposure before they were buried by sediment and stones (Behrensmeyer 1978:157).

In conclusion, it seems that the accumulation of bones in the lime kiln was primarily a natural process which occurred fairly rapidly after the lime kiln fell out of use. The lime kiln was constructed sometime subsequent to the mid-seventeenth century A. D. based on historical records regarding the use of lime kilns (MacLysaght 1979:170-171), and it likely fell out of use sometime prior to the beginning of this century, since none of the older inhabitants of the area remember it ever being used (D. Blair Gibson 1996:17). This conclusion is supported by multiple lines of evidence, including the lack of evidence for butchery of the animals from the site, the absence of any identifiable burnt bone, the low fragmentation of the skeletal elements recovered, the low degree of weathering of the bones, and the presence of two nearly complete skeletons of a pig and a cat. Further, the presence of so few bones from the domesticated food mammals on an island with a relatively impoverished wild fauna seems to indicate that these faunal remains are not primarily the remains of human subsistence activities. As we were excavating the lime kiln on Site E-132 a local inhabitant wandered over to inspect our work, and informed us that there was a lime kiln which had only gone out of use about fifty years ago about a mile from the site. We halted the excavation and went with him to take a look at this modern lime kiln. As we looked through the flue of the modern kiln we saw that the interior of the kiln was already filling with bones and other garbage. Although it seems possible that occasionally the inhabitants of the area around Site E-132 may have dumped things into the hole presented by the disused lime kiln, given the taphonomic evidence I suggest that the accumulation of faunal remains in the lime kiln was a primarily natural occurrence.


I would like to thank Dr. D. Blair Gibson and Mr. Risteárd Ua Crónín for asking me to participate in this excavation in the capacity of crew chief, and for allowing me to analyze the faunal remains from the 1995 field season. I would also like to thank the volunteers from the 1995 field season: Matt Carson, Brian Plummer, Andrea Scott, Abby Owens, Olive Carey, Judy McGovern, Jim Emmons, Phil Chandler, You-Han Chow, Esther Jeng, Adrienne Harper, Michael Keane, Morlin MacNamara, Alice Maher, Betsy Wertheimer, Craig Chenoweth, Diane Rinquist, Sherral Morford, Erica Charlson, Ann Terrell, Karen Mann, Eric Forester, and Betty Colvin. Without their patience and good eyesight I would have had no collection to analyze!

I would also like to thank my adviser, Dr. Pam Crabtree, at the Department of Anthropology at New York University, for her help in identifying these faunal remains, for her many helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper, and for her continued support of my archaeological career. The skeletal collections which were used to identify this assemblage belong to The American Museum of Natural History, and I thank Dr. Bryn Mader in the Department of Mammalogy and Dr. Linda Ford in Herpetology as well as all others in those departments for their assistance. In addition, many thanks go to Dr. James Mellett of the Department of Biology at New York University for providing me with a comparative skeleton of a domesticated cat.

Finally, I would like to thank Julie Zimmermann Holt for her help in co-organizing the session "Contemporary Zooarchaeology: Case Studies from the Old and New Worlds," in which this paper was presented at the 61st Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, April 10-14, 1996. I would also like to thank her for all of her assistance in faunal identification, her many useful comments on this paper, her company on our identifying forays to The American Museum of Natural History, and her overall help to me in all things archaeological.


Arnold, E. N. and J. A. Burton
1978   A Field Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians of Britain and Europe. Collins, London.

Behrensmeyer, A. K.
1978   Taphonomic and Ecologic Information from Bone Weathering. Paleobiology 4:150-162.

Davis, S. J. M.
1987   The Archaeology of Animals. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT.

Gibson, D. B.
1996   Excavations at O'Dea's Castle, Dysert, Co. Clare. Preliminary Report. ms. on file at the Office of Public Works, Dublin, Ireland.

MacLysaght, E.
1979   Irish Life in the Seventeenth Century. Irish Academic Press, Dublin.

Schmid, E.
1972   Atlas of Animal Bones. Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam.

Van Den Brink, F. H.
1967   A Field Guide to the Mammals of Britain and Europe. Collins, London.