Deviant burials, conspiracy theories and a scientific revolution

21 Mar 2023

Image: Chris Read

Atlantic Technological University lecturer Chris Read explains the impact of his current archaeogenetics research and how he got started in this ground-breaking field.

In the early 2000s, Canadian-born archaeologist Chris Read found himself on the shores of Lough Key in north Roscommon. He was leading the excavation of a site associated with the O’Conor kings of Connacht.

Over five field seasons, Read and his team excavated a medieval cemetery and a building believed to be the remains of a 13th century hall. In total, they excavated 137 burials from the cemetery, ranging in date from 600 CE to 1400 CE.

“These burials included several ‘deviant burials’, two of which were interred with large stones in their mouths,” Read explains.

The burials garnered international attention and became the subject of two documentaries.

In Read’s opinion, there was the “rather poor ‘shockumentary’ for National Geographic in 2011 called Mystery of the Vampire Skeletons and the much better Rúin na hUaighe (Secrets of the Grave) on TG4 in 2020.”

Read’s original academic plans were derailed when he visited Ireland in 1995. He ended up moving here and spending three years excavating Viking archaeology in Temple Bar in Dublin.

In 2002, he was asked by the School of Science in IT Sligo (now part of Atlantic Technological University) to help them develop Ireland’s first ever BSc in Archaeology. He started lecturing on the new course in 2003.

‘We are in the midst of a scientific revolution that is overturning previously held ideas about who we are and where we come from’

Tell us about the research you’re currently working on.

In 2014, I started working with scientists researching ancient DNA, initially with the University of Tübingen and later with the Department of Archaeogenetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, which is headed by recent Noble Prize winner Svante Pääbo.

So far, these researchers have used teeth samples from my site in Roscommon to perfect a new technique that recovers not only ancient human DNA, but the DNA from ancient pathogens (viral and bacterial) from plaque deposits on the surface of the tooth.

Using this technique, viable human DNA was recovered from 47 of the 67 samples. The presence of pathogen-related DNA has been identified in these samples and will be further explored as researchers dive deeper into the study of these diseases.

One such study has identified the presence of Hepatitis B from one of the samples. The human DNA from the Roscommon site has also been used in the largest yet early medieval population study.

My current research focus is mostly on bringing the results of this excavation and related DNA analysis to full publication.

At the moment, my research team comprises myself and a single MSc student who is focusing on the analysis of the cemetery and integrating the DNA results.

Having the full genomes reconstructed for 47 medieval inhabitants of North Roscommon provides us with some wonderful insights into the population that we would have never known about through conventional archaeological analyses. The addition of ancient pathogen data brings our knowledge to previously unimagined heights.

With the DNA from Roscommon in the Max Planck Institute’s databases, we will continue to get hits as researchers explore individual pathogens. The most recent hit has been one of the burials testing positive for smallpox.

‘Continued research in archaeology is essential for us to better understand and protect our unique heritage here in Ireland’

Our DNA also continues to be used in large-scale population studies, like the ERC-funded Microscope Project that is examining the genetics of late prehistoric ‘Celtic’ populations across Europe.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Continued research in archaeology is essential for us to better understand and protect our unique heritage here in Ireland. The development of archaeogenetics is having the biggest impact on archaeology since the advent of Carbon-14 dating in the 1950s.

We are in the midst of a scientific revolution that is overturning previously held ideas about who we are and where we come from, and as elements of the past become clearer, our understanding is becoming increasingly complex.

I am very appreciative that my research is contributing to this revolution, with an impact felt on multiple levels.

On the local level, we are gaining a deep look into the inhabitants of medieval north Roscommon over an 800-year period.

Nationally, these results are adding to our rapidly changing understanding of past population dynamics. The pathogenic DNA is a game changer though, providing us with unparalleled insight into medieval health and epidemiology.

On the European level, this data from Roscommon will continue to provide researchers with comparative material from Ireland.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I was blessed with parents who nurtured my curiosity and supported my desire to study anthropology.

Once I got to university and chose archaeology as my focus, I was presented with opportunities to do some independent research. My first excavation experience led to me doing a small research project and a paper presented at a national conference while still an undergrad. What a buzz! It felt amazing to have contributed a new piece of information when I was only 21.

What are some of the biggest challenges or misconceptions you face as a researcher in your field?

One of the biggest challenges faced by those researching archaeology in Ireland is the lack of funding.

Research based on excavation projects in particular take a significantly longer amount of time to complete and bring to publication than most people would believe.

Archaeology is a very popular topic with the general public and we archaeologists have to compete with pseudoarchaeology and conspiracy theories when engaging with the public, particularly in social media contexts, with theories about ancient aliens, Atlantis, etc. This is a shame as I believe the real story of the human past is so mind-bogglingly amazing, we don’t need to be making anything up.

Do you think public engagement with science has changed in recent years?

Online engagement has become my main way to get my research out there.

Social media, which was already a big thing before Covid-19, has become a major forum through which new research is presented and debated. This is a wonderful development as we are able to deliver our findings straight to the public in ways that are much more accessible than academic publishing.

The pandemic also had a negative impact on public support for science and the spread of conspiracy theories. This situation has been capitalised on by pseudoarchaeologists who feed into these conspiracy theories for financial gain. I am not sure if there are many other areas of science in which fringe elements have such a large voice with TV series and Netflix specials.

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