Langley Southerton. Thomas Morris. James Doyle. Three names of tens of thousands representing the mixture of lives that were deported to Spike Island Prison in the 19th century. These are just three names of many that have been lost to the whistling winds of a small-sea town called Cobh nestled within Cork Harbour, Ireland. Sitting directly in front of a ringed opening to the Atlantic is this solemn, star-shaped prison hosted by a lush, green island of 104 acres. What began as a military fortress morphed into a convict prison in 1847 detaining criminals who were sentenced to long-term imprisonment and transportation.
It was also during this time that Ireland was suffering through the Great Famine, which lasted from 1845 to 1852. For Spike Island, it would see its greatest mortality rate with over a thousand inmates dying and being buried on the prison’s grounds. Now, due to moved headstones and discreet landscaping, the buried prisoners of the 19th century convict prison have been obscured. This allowed for 158 humans to be remembered, not by their names nor their legacies, but by the fact that they are unknown burials within an enclosed, disused graveyard. Forgotten.
Forgotten, until 2012 when students and professors of archaeology came together to search for the lost identities and remnants of Spike Island’s first convicts. For this 2016 field school season, the director, Barra O’Donnabhain, began every morning by remembering a prisoner who was held there. These were moments of reflection about the souls who were incarcerated: their wrongdoings or innocence were accounted for, their lives brought to light for the sake of enlightening disregarded pasts. O’Donnabhain expounded that his daily-morning talks were “to remind us that [the prisoners] were real people with real lives, who were victims of a harshly oppressive system.”
For many people, the importance of recognizing and remembering prisoners from over 150 years ago is futile. But when the legacies of lives that have survived oppression are forgotten, the world gets one step closer to forgetting the fact that humankind has allowed for oppression to propagate into modern day. Ireland as a country has seen many generations of lost lives and tumultuous politics; to remember those who were lost to past chaos is a way of not only honoring them, but learning from them as well.
The Truth Behind the Trowel
Archaeology is “not just something dusty about the past,” O’Donnabhain explained. “The past can help us learn about the present [because] it is relevant to real life.” This field, which is a tangible extension of history, requires an analysis of the connection between the dead and the living. This is why the field school was centered around remembering who these prisoners were and their stories. It was five weeks of learning about the effect of loss on Ireland’s history: The Titanic and Lusitania sinkings, the Great Famine, Spike Island itself and more all had an indelible effect on their country and culture.
That being said, it should not be forgotten amid the tragic and morbid sides of the past, archaeology is fun and intriguing. This field school was an opportunity to study and dig within the country making up the subject matter of the syllabus. An opportunity to be hands-on with learning proper field methods, the connection between past and present as well as studying osteoarchaeology from truly passionate archaeologists. It takes great man-power to create the trenches synonymous with archaeology; the labor that goes into the shoveling, mattocking and troweling is far more laborious than what is minimally displayed in movies and television. However, this is where the most intriguing aspects of archaeology culminate; through its interdisciplinary combination of mathematics, science, history and humanities.
Of the lessons taught during this field school, one of the most important is understanding the involvement with the community. As easy as it is to hide behind humongous dirt piles with trowel in hand and to keep the research to those who already know why it is vital, it would be counterintuitive to the purpose of archaeology. Teaching the community about the need to dig up artifacts and people from the past is more than just telling them stories about times of yore. It is revealing to them the connection between then and now. If history is of a repetitive nature describing the ways of human interactions and civilizations, then archaeology is the means by which evidence of that nature is found. Therefore, it is necessary because it provides the proof needed to support or disprove theories characterizing human nature.
Upon the subject of community involvement with Spike Island, O’Donnabhain explained that if there was just one thing he could emphasize the most to the public, as well as his students, it would be the relevance between past and present. For the prisoners, this field school and its research would be a chance to discover their identities as well as the voices behind them. Some of these voices were of the few who did not have a chance to speak before exiting the world. Many of the reports and documents left behind from when the prison was active are from the authority figures and not so much from the prisoners themselves.
Sinners and Saints
It may be easy to judge convicts because they are deemed by society to be criminal, bad or in some cases unworthy. But upon looking at the individual stories of each convict, as well as excavating a few of their remains, it is evident that there is more to consider than the fact that these men were in jail. At the end of the day, with biological minutia aside, their bones are no different than the law-abiding citizens. Humans are all the same. We differ only by our individual pasts, opinions and thoughts—none of which can be excavated years from now. This is why giving a voice to the dominated, subjected, indigenous and yes, even criminal is so critical, because at the time of their death, the social criteria by which they were judged may no longer hold true today. A sinner then may be a saint now.
Above all, archaeology is a humbling field. It is relentless in its endeavors to prove the humanity of our actions and the effects those actions have on the world around us. Everything found is proof of life and growth, which can later be used to teach the importance of learning from our pasts. In terms of Spike Island, past social institutions, such as prisons, can serve as a relative comparison for how present social institutions are today. If archaeologists hundreds of years from now were to examine the skeletons of modern-day prisoners as well as their demographics, what patterns would they find?
Archaeology forces its students to reexamine history based on artifacts recovered underneath layers of passed time. In some areas it requires physical labor and in others it requires meticulous analysis in laboratories; in all cases, it requires an objective outlook on what could have happened—something we will never truly know. Yet, the effects could succeed in sustaining cultures on the verge of being lost, bringing to light truths that at one time were concealed, and in Spike Island’s case identifying souls who have rested in anonymous peace for too long.
Southerton, Morris and Doyle have had their moments of misfortune. Their bodies have long been laid to rest and all that is left of them is what has been portrayed by a society that imprisoned them. Every story depends on the writer. Archaeology is eternal for that very reason — perhaps a new artifact is unearthed contradicting prevailing theories or maybe a new generation of students come along who interpret the artifacts differently. Innovation grows from the prevailing train of thought. Something that will never change is the legacies we leave behind. For the prisoners, their legacies were written for them.
(All photos taken by KimberMarie Faircloth)