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Was Hillsborough Castle the scene of a grave killing?

Teenage time team detectives have unearthed a 10th-century skeleton at royal estate in Co Down. But have the volunteer archaeologists unwittingly stumbled on a 1,000-year-old murder-mystery?

By Ivan Little

Volunteer archaeologists are buzzing after unearthing more human remains in the Queen's back garden at Hillsborough Castle. And there was speculation that the time teams may also have succeeded in finding remnants of an old church which used to stand on the site of the official royal residence.

The latest discoveries were made close to where a medieval skeleton was uncovered during the early phases of the excavations - which were open to the public.

Experts believe the skeleton was that of a woman, but the genteel Co Down village, which is home to the new Secretary of State, James Brokenshire, has been gripped by questions over the cause of her death.

Local people said a gaping hole in the skeleton's head might have suggested a little skull-duggery, but archaeology experts have privately said it would be wrong to suggest that murder was a no-brainer.

"The early indications are that the damage to the skull was caused by a number of factors which had no malice of intent," said one source. "The movement and pressure of the soil could have been to blame."

And yesterday, volunteers leaving the public dig revealed that the searches had yielded even more archaeological treasures.

"It has been great to be here," says 27-year-old Jason Shanks, from Dromore, Co Down, who has an archaeology degree, but who works as a gardener.

"More skeletal remains were found on the site today.

Read more

Hillsborough Castle dig unearths medieval skeleton at Queen's residence 

"They are 'articulated', which means they are just as they were when they were laid down at burial.

"I also uncovered a skull and a long bone of a leg."

And he adds: “The organisers have said they won’t be removing the skeletons which have been found in the last few days, unlike the one that was uncovered earlier in the dig.”

Michael Fearon, who’s 23 and from Armagh, found what is thought to have been part of the wall of the church, which had been the focus of the archaeologists’ search in the first place.

Michael says: “It was initially thought what I discovered was a grave-cut, but they dug it down a wee bit further and found mortar in between the rocks, which indicated that it was, indeed, probably a wall.”

Michael was remarkably sanguine about his apparent breakthrough: “I just called one of the experts over and told him what I’d found. It was as simple as that.”

Tom Hamill (17), from Dollingstown, near Lurgan, who wants to study archaeology at Queen’s University Belfast next year, confirmed that organisers of the dig were upbeat that they may have found the wall of the church, which was demolished by the Hill family after they built their eponymous castle on the site in 1770.

“They were definitely optimistic that it was the wall,” says Tom, whose only finds were a few teeth, some tiles and pieces of bone — though he isn’t throwing in the trowel just yet.

It has always been thought that the church the archaeologists have been trying to locate was the forerunner to St Malachy’s church, which was re-built in the centre of Hillsborough and is now one of the village’s most acclaimed architectural gems.

Eighteen-year-old skull — sorry, school — friends Emma Robeson, from Downpatrick, and Sara Cathcart, from Saintfield, were euphoric after their day getting down and dirty with the archaeologists.

“It was really, really interesting,” says Emma. “We found a lot more than we expected, including skulls. We’d thought we might come across a few pots — which we did — but the skulls were a real bonus.”

Sara, who is planning to study history at university, had no problem coming face-to-face with skulls, which, after all, had once been people’s faces.

“No, I didn’t think it was gruesome. It was exciting. We also found a few random leg bones,” she says.

Emma adds: “I only joined Sara on the excavation because I was looking for a new hobby. And I think that archaeology is the one for me, even though I am planning to do accountancy at university.”

Emma and Sara say they hope to be at a public talk in Hillsborough Castle in October, when officials from the Northern Archaeology Consultancy organisation, who are co-ordinating the dig, are due to report back on their findings.

It’s understood that the skeleton, which was found earlier in the week, will be analysed before it is reburied.

Hundreds of American tourists, many of them from the cruise ship Caribbean Princess, which was docked in Belfast after technical problems forced it to steer clear of Dublin, visited Hillsborough Castle, but were totally unaware of the skeleton.

“Wow, that is fascinating,” says Dave Landuyt, from Michigan. “I think they missed a trick. I would love to have been told more about it.”

His wife, Tina, agrees: “No one mentioned any skeletons to us, though the history of the castle was fascinating in its own right.”

Outside the castle, many private residents admit they’ve been intrigued by the pictures of the medieval skeleton and wondered if she had been killed, because of the hole in her skull.

“Maybe it’s one for the pre-historical inquiries team to investigate,” says one man as he sups a pint in the sunshine opposite the castle in a pub.

The condition of the skeleton was a surprise to others, who couldn’t believe it could have dated back as far as the 12th century and had teeth that would have done Donny Osmond proud.

But one long-term resident, Ronnie Malpas, was staying grounded about the underground find.

“I had always been told that there was a graveyard on that site before the castle was built,  and what else are you going to find in a burial ground? I don’t think they’ve been looking in the right place,” he says.

Businessmen in Hillsborough are keeping their eyes on the diggers, but not the ones in the castle.

One shop owner says: “We’re more Holesborough than Hillsborough at the minute. The water people have had Lisburn Street dug up for a couple of weeks and the traffic is in chaos.

“It’s costing us money. Trade has been extremely poor, to say the least.”

Quiet as the grave, perhaps?

Digging deep to unearth centuries of history

Archaeologists estimate the skeleton found in Hillsborough could date back to the medieval period — perhaps the 10th century.

It’s believed the bones are of a woman — aged in her 20s or 30s, judging by the state of her teeth.

Associated finds, such as pottery fragments, also help 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,” says 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.

“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,” says Ms Fuller.

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

An estimated 300 volunteers took part in the two-week dig, which finishes today.

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 in October.

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