County: Dublin Site name: ST PETER
Sites and Monuments Record No.: SMR 18:20(415) Licence number: 02E1779
Author: Ruth Elliott for Archaeological Development Services Ltd, Windsor House, 11 Fairview Strand, Fairview, Dublin 3.
Site type: Medieval, post-medieval graveyard
ITM: E 712507m, N 731025m
Latitude, Longitude (decimal degrees): 53.317526, -6.311437
The development was located on the site of St Peter's churchyard on Peter Row, to the rear of the existing YMCA building on Aungier Street, Dublin 2. The western boundary of the site corresponds to the border of the 12th-century parish of St Peter's and it is probable that this derived from the enclosure of a pre-Viking monastic settlement (Stout & Stout 1992, 15). St Peter's Church was constructed in 1685 to replace the ruin of St Peter Del Hille, which lay to the north of the site within the former enclosure (Craig 1969, 40). The new St Peter's was enlarged in 1773 and rebuilt in the Gothic style in 1867, retaining only the nave walls of the original church (McDonald 1982). The churchyard continued in use until c. 1883 (Dublin Public Libraries 1990, 76).
In the 1980s the church was demolished and an exhumation carried out in the churchyard under the supervision of Dublin Corporation and the Eastern Health Board. In 1988 the concrete footings and drainage system for a hostel were constructed in the area of the churchyard but the development was terminated and the site was utilised as a carpark for the next fifteen years. Planning permission was granted to the YMCA by Dublin Corporation in December 2000 to construct a six-storey building on the site to provide 67 sheltered housing units, subject to the requirements of the relevant heritage authorities.
Testing was carried out between 27 and 29 November 2002. This revealed that in situ soil deposits lay at a depth of 0.24-0.46m below the existing ground level along the line of the western boundary and in the northern part of the site. These had been truncated by the modern developments and much of the site was filled in by a layer of redeposited graveyard soil containing a large quantity of disarticulated human remains. Monitoring commenced on 9 January 2003. Following the discovery of in situ burials on the site and the potential for underlying medieval archaeology, excavation became necessary. This commenced, in conjunction with monitoring, on 12 February and was completed on 15 August 2003.
The site was divided into five areas. The layers of redeposited graveyard soil were removed by mechanical excavator and transported to analternative site, where they were subject to a screening process to extract all human remains, grave slab fragments and archaeological artefacts. Medieval deposits were found underlying the burial horizon in some parts of the site and these were excavated. Along the Peter Row border, some of these deposits descended to an unsafe depth and in these locations they were preserved in situ.
Excavation showed that the site had been severely damaged by the 1980-1981 exhumation process and the later 1988 development. All that remained were islands of in situ material that had escaped modern disturbance due to their depth or location. There were two distinct phases of activity that survived within these islands: the first was represented by medieval soil deposits and the second by post-medieval burials which overlay them.
Underneath the burial horizon a number of medieval features survived on the site. The most prominent was a layer of medieval soil (F007 in the north and F010 in the south) that overlay subsoil and into which the first burials on the site were cut. There is a possibility that this represented collapsed bank material related to the ecclesiastical enclosure that ran along the line of the western boundary. It is equally possible that the layer represented ordinary farm soil from within the former enclosure. Fragments of medieval floor-tile found within the deposit did suggest an ecclesiastical association for the layer.
Within a small island of in situ material that survived in Area 2, a group of features were found underlying F010. The earliest of these was a thin layer of soil, into which a linear cut was made parallel to the western boundary. It may have represented the cut of a ditch associated with the ecclesiastical enclosure but this could not be established, as the feature was too deep to safely excavate and was instead preserved in situ. Stratigraphically contemporary was a paved area, a post-hole and two shell middens, probably testifying to localised domestic activity. Later in the chronology, the remains of two plough furrows gave the impression that the site lay within the enclosure and represented farmland during the later medieval period. F010 overlay these and, in one location, part of a metalled surface overlay F010. This feature may have been the remains of a path or walkway along the line of the enclosure.
There was evidence for at least 127 burials surviving on the site, most of them being supine and extended adult inhumations. There were ten infant and fourteen juvenile or child burials. Some burials were found within family plots containing up to seven individuals. There was one example of a prone burial and one individual was found lying on their right side. However, these were severely truncated burials and it is possible that their unusual positioning was due to disturbance prior to full decomposition. There was no evidence to suggest that any of the burials pre-dated the construction of the church in 1685, as even some of the earliest in the stratigraphy contained fragments of mortar, red brick and post- medieval pottery in their fills. It is thought that the churchyard was disused by 1883.
The majority of burials were orientated somewhere between north-east to south-west and east-north-east to west-south-west. This placed them roughly perpendicular to the western boundary wall, which must have been used as a guideline, at least in the areas near to it, where most of the surviving burials were located. There were a significant number of burials orientated east to west and, although there was some evidence to suggest that these were earlier chronologically, they also appeared to be distributed further away from the boundary wall and closer to the location of the church, which had been aligned on the cardinal points. The idea that the orientation of burials was influenced by their location was further supported by a series of inhumations at the southernmost point of the site (Burials 162-164). The almost exact north-east to south-west orientation of these burials gave the impression that they had been literally squeezed in at the edge of the churchyard.
The human remains were in differing states of preservation and most were truncated to varying degrees. A number were very well preserved, patches of hair sometimes being found in situ, and in one instance a piece of skin survived adhering to a shroud pin (Burial 138). Where the bones were in poor condition, this was frequently due to the corrosive effects of overlying metal plaques that had fallen in on top of bodies as the coffins decayed. Some of the burials contained evidence of possible shroud fabric and shroud pins. One displayed an unusual material surrounding the chest area of the body. This had a canvas-like fabric on the underside and a metallic covering on the top, decorated with a raised herringbone design. This could have been part of a garment of decorative or religious significance. Remnants of decayed coffin wood were found with nearly every burial. Due to disturbance by the later burials (and in many cases poor preservation), the shape and form of the coffins could not always be determined. However, where identification was possible the majority of burials were contained within classic six-sided, modern-shaped wooden coffins (referred to as 'trapezoidal'). There were some rectangular or subrectangular caskets uncovered and these were usually early in the sequence. There were occasional instances of metal or lead-lined coffins and, in one case, metal sheeting was found on the exterior of the casket. Metallic plaques, handles, hinges and nails were all common and often in situ finds associated with coffins.
The most outstanding coffin uncovered suggested a wealthy and very prestigious burial (Burial 055). This was exceptionally well preserved, trapezoidal in shape and was found with six in situ coffin handles. A metallic impressed design was found on the vertical headboard of the coffin, almost like a semi-circle surrounded by the petals of a flower. The casket appeared to have had a high rim standing vertically along each side of the lid and the remains of a metallic plaque were found overlying the chest area of the skeleton. The coffin contained the body of an adult woman and a mortuary structure had been constructed to cover the burial. This was a rectangular stone structure, built against the western boundary wall for stability. It may have represented the remains of a mort safe, a structure designed to protect recent burials from body snatchers. Had this been the case, it was not without good reason. An empty child-size coffin, 2.5m to the south, underlay a large, crudely cut hole which appeared to be direct evidence of body snatching at St Peter's. Alternatively, the mortuary structure could have been the foundations of a crypt or vault, but the lack of any surviving superstructure made it difficult to determine. A vault had been constructed in St Peter's churchyard for the Emmet family into which Robert Emmet's mother, Elizabeth Mason, was buried and it is a possibility that Burial 055 may represent her remains. Unfortunately no contemporary reference could be found describing the form of the vault or its exact location in the churchyard.
The 1980/1 exhumations were carried out with the use of a mechanical excavator and in the space of five months 1200 burials were removed from the site and reinterred at St Luke's Crypt. It is probable that health-and-safety reasons prevented deep excavation along the line of the western boundary, where a high wall stood, accounting for dense survival along this line. The north-western part of the site seems to have been largely ignored during the exhumation but most of the site was well cleared to a depth of approximately 2.4m. In fact it appears to have been the 1988 development which inflicted the most striking damage, cutting burials in half and truncating skeletons indiscriminately. As soil sieving was carried out during the exhumation, it was probably this later disturbance that accounted for the large quantity of disarticulated human remains that were contained within the redeposited graveyard soil used to backfill the site.
A large quantity of grave-slab fragments was found within the various layers of redeposited graveyard soil on the site. A series of correspondence dating from the 1980s development brought to light the possibility that many of these may not have originated from the site at St Peter's. A letter from the original developers, McDonnell and Dixon (dated July 1980), stated that 'the headstones stacked against the wall are not from St Peter's graveyard but were put there some sixty years ago when another graveyard closed down'. There was no indication of the source of this information and it has not been substantiated by research carried out to date. The evidence in fact suggests that the graveslabs had been placed there prior to 1880, when the ground level of the churchyard was being raised to the level of the outer road frontage (Emmet 1898, 102). The developer in the 1980s, however, directed that legible slabs were to be removed to the crypt at St Luke's and further instructed that, if they were broken in the attempt, they were to be treated as builder's rubble. It can therefore be surmised that the large quantity of graveslab fragments uncovered within the redeposited soils had been utilised as rubble at this time. It appears that the majority were taken to St Luke's and 23 to St Patrick's Cathedral.
Due to the potential for the graveslabs to contain valuable genealogical information, the National Museum considered that any 'plans for their future should include public access to this information'. For this reason, each fragment was numbered, photographed and recorded by sketch and description on specifically designed sheets. Where an inscription or carving was found to be present, rubbings were taken. The full grave-slab record has been archived and remains on the premises of Archaeological Development Services Ltd, where it can be consulted by request.
At the time of writing, specialist analysis has not yet been completed with respect to human remains or the large quantity of ceramics retrieved from the site. The YMCA have organised for human remains from the current excavation to be reinterred at Mount St Jerome's Cemetery, where they intend to purchase a burial plot and erect a headstone. The YMCA are also arranging to have the graveslabs placed in the courtyard of St Patrick's Cathedral, an appropriate location, as St Patrick's is the current parish house of St Peter's and received graveslabs from the site after the 1980s exhumation.
Craig, M. 1969 Dublin 1680-1860. A social and architectural history. Dublin.
Dublin Public Libraries 1990 Directory of graveyards in the Dublin area.
Emmet, T.A. 1898 The Emmet family with some incidents relating to Irish history. New York.
McDonald, F. 1982 Derelict Dublin. Irish Times 12, 18 December 1982.
Stout, G., and Stout, M. 1992 Patterns in the past: County Dublin 5000BC-1000AD. In Aalen and Whelan (eds), Dublin city and county: from prehistory to present. Geography Publications.
Editor's note: Although excavation work was completed on this site in 2003, the report was not received in time for inclusion in the bulletin of that year.