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Donegal skeletons of Ballyhanna

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Sceala Clann T.D.
Location: Belfast and Donegal.

Irish History Forum Discussion:     Donegal skeletons of Ballyhanna

Skeletons, found in a forgotten Donegal graveyard, could help solve the medical mysteries of Multiple Osteochondromas.
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Images of Ballyhanna bones found

Hereditary multiple exostoses (HME) is a rare medical condition in which multiple bony spurs or lumps (also known as exostoses, or osteochondromas) develop on the bones of a child. HME is synonymous with Multiple hereditary exostoses and Multiple osteochondromatosis, which is the preferred term used by the World Health Organization.
HME is estimated to occur in 1 in 50,000 people. It is characterized by the growth of cartilage-capped benign bone tumours around areas of active bone growth, particularly the metaphysis of the long bones. HME can lead to the shortening and bowing of bones, as such affected individuals often have a short stature. Depending on their location the exostoses can cause the following problems: pain or numbness from nerve compression, vascular compromise, inequality of limb length, irritation of tendon and muscle, as well as a limited range of motion at the joints upon which they encroach. Generally, when a person with HME reaches maturity, and their bones stop growing, the exostoses also stop growing. A person with HME has an increased risk of developing a rare form of bone cancer called chondrosarcoma as an adult.

Ancient Donegal skeletons could help solve mystery of rare disease
By Louise Hogan
Two ancient skeletons with a rare genetic bone disease unearthed from a medieval Irish graveyard may hold key insights for medical experts.

An archaeologist believes the discovery of the remains -- afflicted by massive bone growths -- could help modern-day clinicians glean more information about that unusual debilitating condition.

There have only been 16 cases of the hereditary bone growth disorder, now known as multiple osteochondromas, identified in ancient remains worldwide. Four of these have been located in Ireland.

The two skeletons -- one around 800-years-old and the other 1,100-years-old -- dug up along with the remains of more than 1,000 men, women and children from the Ballyhanna graveyard site at Ballyshannon, Co Donegal, have attracted the attention of international medical researchers.

Dr Eileen Murphy, an archaeology lecturer at Queen's University Belfast, believes the two cases could "help inform clinicians" in understanding the disease.

"I think it is good for clinicians to look at how diseases change and the way they turn up in the body over time. Some of the Jericho cases (dating from the Middle Bronze Age) are very old and can show if it has progressed in any way or mutated," Dr Murphy, who is writing a paper on the two cases, said.

A sample of the 800-year-old remains from Skeleton 331 known as 'Ballyhanna Man' was sent to a genetics unit in Italy for further examination.

"We took a sample of the bone to send off to genetics units but the DNA in the bone was too degraded," Dr Murphy explained.

However, they hold hopes that in the future a specialised laboratory may be able to extract DNA of sufficient quality for analysis to provide clues as to the evolution of the disease, which is estimated to affect one in 50,000 people.

Researchers from the Institute of Technology in Sligo and Queen's University Belfast are collaborating on the Ballyhanna project.

The 800-year-old remains of the worst-affected man, who died aged between 25 to 35 years old, showed he would have been physically disabled due to massive bony projections.

It is likely that he would have suffered from pain and have been recognised by others as having a physically debilitating condition from a young age.


The remains of the other man, who died a few hundred years earlier aged around 35-50 years, had less prominent growths.

In both cases, they were interred in the community graveyard, suggesting they were not shunned and treated as equals.

A US group run by parents' of children affected by the disease has contacted the Ballyhanna project to learn more about the discoveries.

The remains were discovered when the forgotten cemetery at Ballyhanna was excavated in 2003/2004 ahead of the building of a new stretch of motorway.

- Louise Hogan

The Ballyhanna Research Project--an introduction

Michael MacDonagh
Michael MacDonagh is a Senior Archaeologist with the NRA, heading up its NW Archaeology Team based out of the Donegal National Road Design Office. Michael graduated with an MA in archaeology from UCD in 1992 and spent seven years in the north of Ireland working for both the Environment & Heritage Service and the private sector, carrying out excavations, survey, bogland prospection and heritage management. After a couple of years spent in Berlin carrying out excavations he returned to join Donegal County Council working on project managing NRA road
schemes and has been in his current position since January of this year.
National Roads Authority

Road Scheme
N15 Bundoran­Ballyshannon Bypass
In late 2003, excavations began on a site where human skeletal remains had been recently discovered along the route of the N15 Bundoran­
Ballyshannon Bypass outside Ballyshannon, Co. Donegal. The work at Ballyhanna by Irish Archaeological Consultancy Ltd (Site Director: Brian O'Donoghue) over the next six months uncovered a substantial medieval graveyard around the stone foundations of a small building, thought to be the remains of Ballyhanna Church. People were being buried at the graveyard during or shortly after the reign of Edward I (1272­1307). A silver penny found with one of the burials is evidence of this. Coins from the reign of Henry IV indicate the graveyard, if not the church itself, was still in use in the early 15th century. It was clear following the excavation that the large amount of skeletal material could provide a wealth of information on the lifestyle, diets and causes of illness and death within a medieval population. Accordingly, a cross-border research team was established to identify areas of scientific research that would glean the most information from the material. The result of that collaboration is the NRA-funded Ballyhanna Research Project.

The Project's academic partners are Queen's University, Belfast (QUB), and Institute of Technology, Sligo (ITS). Over the next three years these two institutions shall produce a number of significant bodies of research through two Masters of Science (ITS) and a PhD doctorate in osteoarchaeology (QUB). Osteaoarchaoelogist Catriona McKenzie is carrying out the PhD. Dr Eileen Murphy, QUB, who is herself carrying out specific osteoarchaeological analysis of the juvenile skeletons is supervising the PhD. Dr Colm Donnelly, QUB, is also on the project management board providing project management expertise. Róisín
McCarthy, the projects osteoarchaeological research assistant, is co-ordinating the activities of all team members and is also carrying out the osteoarchaeological analysis of the disarticulated remains. Tasneem Bashir, analytical chemist, is carrying out an MSc to use elemental analysis to probe nutritional status and its subsequent effect on human health. Dr Ted McGowan, ITS, is supervising this research. Sheila Tierney, biomolecular scientist, is carrying out MSc attempting to unlock
the secrets of the gender of some of the juvenile and infant skeletons buried at Ballyhanna. Dr Jeremy Bird, ITS, is supervising this research and heading up the ITS management of the project.

The results of the Ballyhanna Research Project will be published upon its completion and it is hoped that this multidisciplinary approach will add significantly to our understanding of medieval Ballyshannon and more generally of medieval Ireland.

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