Site level

A sample of Irish graveyards was investigated to understand how they had developed, and to identify the changes in monument types, materials, decoration and form of text over time. Intrasite patterning over time, denomination and class has become apparent.

Religion and identity

The role of religion has been significant in Irish society and is manifested in the graveyard monuments. Symbols, monument forms and text all indicate denominational preferences. The spatial arrangement of denominations within mixed graveyards can be contrasted with single-denomination burial grounds.

Another example of identity being variably represented in commemoration is that of mariners; a recent study highlights the relative paucity of Catholic mariner memorials compared with those found in Protestant burial grounds.

Regional level

The regions of West Ulster and central County Louth were investigated to reveal regional patterns in monument form, materials and the work of particular masons or schools of carving. The memorials of Balrothery, County Dublin and the surrounding area had already been investigated.

Recent published research has reviewed the mortuary traditions of County Kerry, and identified a small group of headstones in County Louth with extremely unusual Nativity scenes. This study also applied for the first time in a detailed study the use of Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) to allow identification of graveyard monument iconography and the products of a particular carver.

Mortality symbols

Many 17th-century and early 18th-century memorials incorporate mortality symbols, of which five elements are commonly used:

  • Skull
  • Long bones
  • Coffin
  • Hourglass
  • Bell.

These symbols seem to originate in the Ulster Scots settler monuments but are then also used by Catholics on their memorials, especially a form of West Ulster wheeled cross headstone.


This research programme continues to make significant contributions to current debates in historical archaeology, particularly in the study of individual and group identity. The development of Irish historical or post-medieval archaeology is taking place at a rapid rate, and this research forms part of the range of fieldwork being undertaken in Ireland by government, contract and university archaeologists. This work forms part of a larger research programme examining mortuary behaviour in the historic period.


This project was sponsored by the University of Liverpool and Heritage Council.

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