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Hillsborough Castle dig unearths medieval skeleton at Queen's residence

By Allan Preston

Published 03/08/2016

An archaeologist works around the ancient skeleton
An archaeologist works around the ancient skeleton

A medieval skeleton was excavated from the grounds of Hillsborough Castle on Tuesday after a chance discovery by volunteers.

A fact-finding dig has been under way in the 90-acre grounds of the Queen's official residence in Northern Ireland to find the remains of a Georgian-era church.

But just two hours into the work last week volunteers clearing grass sods were shocked to find a human skull.

After uncovering the skeleton, professional archaeologists on the scene estimated the remains could date back to the medieval period and the 10th century.

It's believed the bones are of a woman in her 20s or 30s, judging by the state of her teeth. Associated finds like pottery fragments also helped to date the find.

"The volunteers who discovered the skull were on a team away day, they'd been on a bit of heavy de-sodding when it happened," explained Rosanagh Fuller from Historic Royal Palaces, which runs Hillsborough Castle.

"As they were marking out the area they found some large stones. We thought: 'Brilliant, that must be the church walls, let's crack on'. Within two hours we discovered a burial site - they were pretty surprised."

With the castle constructed in 1770 by the Hill family, it's believed a church that had stood on the grounds was demolished and moved to the village centre, where it remains today as St Malachy's.

Elaborating on the find, Rosanagh said: "We're talking about early Christian times, which is really exciting because then we're talking about a burial ground that was here even before Hillsborough village.

"We have found a few other grave cuts, suggesting there are others, but we're just excavating the one skeleton."

Some of the young volunteers, 300 of whom are taking part in the excavation
Some of the young volunteers, 300 of whom are taking part in the excavation

With an estimated 300 volunteers taking part in the two-week dig, the team is still focused on finding evidence of the place of worship.

The dig continues until Saturday, and with top soil clues such as a Georgian coin and roof slates, the team is confident it will be able to find the church the volunteers were originally searching for.

As for the mystery skeleton, a team from Northern Archaeological Consultancy will now conduct an in-depth investigation, and will deliver its findings in a public talk to be held at Hillsborough Castle on October 29.

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