Social identity in early medieval Ireland: A bioarchaeology of the early Christian cemetery on Omey Island, Co. Galway

Rachel E Scott, University of Pennsylvania


An understanding of identity, of how individuals and groups relate to each other, is fundamental to any understanding of human social life both in the present and in the past. Bioarchaeology offers a powerful, though often underutilized, means for investigating identity in past societies. Not only are identities created and expressed through the manipulation of the physical body, but also the body forms a basis for and shapes social relations and identities. Because of this reciprocal relationship, we can access identities in the past through the contextual analysis of human remains. This work demonstrates the potential of the bioarchaeology of social identity using a case study from early medieval Ireland (c. AD 400-1200). ^ By analyzing the cemetery on Omey Island, Co. Galway within its larger historical and cultural contexts, I explore how people in early medieval Ireland actively created and maintained their social identities. I employ an explicitly bioarchaeological approach---integrating human skeletal, archaeological, and historical data---in order to discuss identity construction at both the level of the community and that of the person. I address identity at the level of the community by considering the role of Omey Island in the surrounding region. Despite living in dispersed farmsteads, the early medieval inhabitants of the area formed a local community through participation in ritual activities---both burial and pilgrimage---at a single location, Omey Island. At the level of the person, I interrelate status hierarchies, kinship relations, age categories, and gender roles in order to reconstruct the early Irish life course, i.e. the cultural narrative of aging in early medieval Ireland. For both the individual and the collective, the evidence testifies to the central role of religious and ritual activities in the construction of social identity in early Ireland. Individuals actively chose to participate in ritual practices which delineated their social roles, bound them together in a local community, and affiliated them with the larger early Christian community in Ireland. ^

Subject Area

Anthropology, Archaeology

Recommended Citation

Scott, Rachel E, "Social identity in early medieval Ireland: A bioarchaeology of the early Christian cemetery on Omey Island, Co. Galway" (2006). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3246234.