2022 got off to a very good start for PTP, with all of our Irish human and animal samples finally hand delivered to Cardiff University for isotope analysis. Rich and Katie will be undertaking a variety of isotope analyses: carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis on the bulk bone collagen as well as some incremental analysis of dentine, to match the analysis already undertaken on our Orkney samples. We’ve also decided to undertake targeted sulphur isotope analyses on the Irish samples for its provenancing potential – not much has been done before on Irish archaeological material. Sulphur isotope values can be complicated by the effect of sea spray, so for that reason we are not doing the same for our Orkney samples. Tooth enamel from both Irish and Orcadian sample sets will also undergo strontium analysis. It will be a busy few months for the lab!

February 2022 also saw the publication of our first paper, on the amazing Middle Neolithic cattle assemblage from Kilshane enclosure, just north of Dublin. The paper is fully open access through the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports and can be downloaded here. Congratulations to Fabienne for leading this important piece of research!

Osteology in the frame

While the PTP project has a strong biomolecular approach, restricted access to laboratories and museum archives during Covid-19 has necessitated a few creative pivots. One such example was the vast cremated bone assemblage from the passage tomb at Knockroe, Co. Kilkenny. Knockroe was excavated in the early 1990s and again in 2010 by Professor Muiris O’Sullivan at UCD. The burial deposits were completely recovered, making it a very rare and scientifically important passage tomb assemblage. Working with Dr Jonny Geber from the University of Edinburgh, a leading osteologist with a genuine interest in cremated bone (not many people are!), we set about assessing the material and working out a systematic approach to its analysis. Sieving and sorting all of the fragments into standardized size categories will allow us to compare this assemblage with the Carrowkeel passage tombs, which Jonny has already analysed. There is a lot of cremated bone from Knockroe – well over 100 kilos we think – and Jonny started his analysis in August 2021, staying for nearly five weeks at our laboratories at UCD. That’s dedication!

Jonny sorting cremated human bone fragments from Knockroe

Fabienne in Paris

In June 2021, after a few postponements due to Covid, Fabienne finally made it across to the Muséum Nationale d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris to receive training in incremental isotope analysis from its leading practitioner Dr Marie Balasse, Director of Research at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique based at MNHN. Fabienne will be working on the Middle Neolithic cattle molars from Kilshane, Co. Dublin (subject of an earlier post!), sequentially sampling the tooth enamel and undertaking carbon and oxygen isotope analysis on the sampled powders. The resulting isotope data will then be modelled to provide high resolution information on foddering and birth season. This sort of analysis has never been carried out on Irish Neolithic animals and we’re hoping for some interesting results to compare with other prehistoric European sites.

Assessing collections in the NMI

In December 2020, PTP was able to access the storage facilities of the National Museum of Ireland to assess our target Irish sites. Human remains and animal remains are stored separately, so this visit focused on assessing human burials from passage tomb and contemporary sites. As we’ve been discovering, this initial assessment or ‘feasibility’ step is crucial, as many key sites were excavated in the 19th and early 20th centuries with different recording standards and priorities. Full osteological and zooarchaeological analysis may not have been undertaken at the time of excavation and this presents both opportunities and challenges. Another important consideration is the destructive nature of much of PTP’s planned analysis and the need to balance this against a finite archaeological resource. We came away from the NMI with a good appreciation of the various archives and their condition, ready to submit a refined sample list and application to alter/export the material in 2021.

Historical label accompanying the human bone assemblage from Fourknocks passage tomb, Co. Meath, excavated in 1950.

Isotope analysis starts at Cardiff

2020 was a tough year for the PTP project, with travel difficult and access to institutions very limited. However, in November 2020 Fabienne managed to get permission to travel to Scotland, collect our samples from Orkney and bring them down to Cardiff to our collaborators in the School of Archaeology, History and Religion (SHARE) at Cardiff University. Thanks to Rich Madgwick and newly co-opted team member Katie Faillace, Fabienne received training in sample preparation and the first step in isotope analysis got underway. After so much upheaval and uncertainty during the year this was a big milestone, and Fabienne was definitely smiling underneath her facemask!

Fabienne loading the freeze drier with bone collagen samples

Sampling at National Museums Scotland

After an initial assessment late in 2019, Fabienne returned to the depot of the National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh in February 2020 to start sampling PTP’s target human and animal specimens from Orkney. Working across the departments of Archaeology and Natural Science, Fabienne was made very welcome by the NMS curatorial staff! With the selections made, everything will stay safely in Edinburgh until Fabienne can sample collections from archives on the Orkney Islands before hand transporting both sets of samples down to the laboratories in Cardiff University later in 2020.

Fabienne selecting animal bone samples in the NMS depot

New Year’s meeting in the Boyne

In late January 2020, PTP organised a short meeting and fieldtrip with Bristol team members Professor Richard Evershed and Lilly Olet. Lilly joined PTP in September 2019 with a PhD project that combines organic residue analysis of Middle-Late Neolithic pottery and radiocarbon dating. Neither Richard or Lilly had ever seen a passage tomb before, so it was high time to give them a proper introduction!

Project overviews and strategy meetings were slated for Day 1, but there was full day fieldtrip in county Meath planned for Day 2. The first stop was Fourknocks passage tomb, followed by a tour of the recently re-designed Brú na Bóinne WHS visitor centre and topped off by guided tours of Newgrange and Knowth passage tombs. A hugely memorable day was had by all, with VIP treatment from staff at the Brú na Bóinne WHS visitor centre. Special thanks also to Dr Neil Carlin from UCD School of Archaeology for being our designated driver/chauffeur for the day!

Lilly admiring the carved lintels inside Fourknocks passage tomb
UCD PhD Patricia Kenny, Richard, Jessica, Fabienne and Lilly in front of Newgrange
Neil pointing out the quartz spread in front of one the Newgrange satellite tombs

Proteomics and archaeology

In November 2019, PTP invited project collaborator Dr Mike Buckley (University of Manchester) to host a special seminar on the potential applications of proteomics in Irish archaeology. The event took place in UCD, timed to coincide with Science Week (10-17 November), and was supported by the Archaeology and Heritage division of Transport Infrastructure Ireland. Collagen fingerprinting, and proteomics more generally, is one of the key methodological approaches employed by PTP to access information stored in the collagen of unburnt bone fragments and tooth enamel. This is especially important for archaeological bone assemblages from Ireland, where preservation levels can be very low and bone is quite degraded leaving few macroscopic or morphological features left to analyse.

Interest levels on the day were high, with Mike fielding a raft of questions from museum curators, TII project archaeologists, as well as post-ex managers from commercial archaeology companies and staff and graduate students from UCD. Thanks to all who attended!


It’s been very quiet from us for quite a while now. Like many research projects, the Covid-19 pandemic threw us quite a bit off course and upset many of our plans for 2020 and beyond. But we’ve been working away in the background, making progress in whatever areas we could. We’ll be bringing you up to speed on developments so far, with a little look back to late 2019 first on the list! Stay tuned…

PTP in the papers

IT_article_Sept2019The Passage Tomb People project was the subject of an article by Sean Duke in The Irish Times in late September. The piece focused on some of the more high profile sites we will be sampling for the project: the Boyne passage tombs of Newgrange and Knowth and the material excavated from them in the 1960s onwards. It was nice to see a key message of our project filtering into mainstream media – the huge potential of molecular-level analysis on archive archaeological remains! You can read the full article here.