Hill area should be preserved as World Heritage site, says ex-MP

Hill area should be preserved as World Heritage site, says ex-MP

8 August 2018

THE historic Hill of Down in Downpatrick should be designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, according to former South Down MP Margaret Ritchie.

Her call comes after archaeologists from Queen’s University Belfast unearthed 12 skeletons beside the site of an ancient monastery close to St Patrick’s grave.

The 700 year-old remains were first thought to have belonged to Benedictine monks, but further unexpected discoveries including women and children mean an ancient community burial site may have been found.

Miss Ritchie said the discovery of the possible medieval burial site shows there is “significant heritage going back centuries on the Hill of Down site”. 

And she is urging Newry, Mourne and Down Council to work with relevant authorities in Belfast, London and Dublin to ensure this happens.

The skeletons were the latest to be revealed at the Cathedral after an earlier discovery in March during digging in preparation of the installation of a replica of St Patrick’s Cross.

It is believed the remains may date as far back as the 14th and 15th century.

While it was initially believed the remains were Benedictine monks, it is now thought the area may have been a community burial ground but it will take several months of investigation and testing at Queen’s in Belfast before that can be finally confirmed, according to excavation director Brian Sloan.

“The examined remains will be treated with respect,” he said. “They’re not just bones, they’re people: Someone’s mother, father, son or daughter,” he told BBC NI.

“They’ll be studied to try and determine the age at death, any pathology that indicates how they died or lived. Then they’ll come back to the site. The Dean here has very kindly offered the cathedral for reburial.”

Mr Sloan said that he believed that this discovery was “only the tip of an iceberg” due to what the excavation had already uncovered in such a small area. 

Ms Ritchie pointed out to the evidence from Nick Brannon’s dig in the 1980s and the Tony Robinson ‘Time Team’ digs of 2006 in support of Mr Sloan’s claim. 

“All of this instructive information about this site confirms for me that the Hill of Down site should be an UNESCO World Heritage site, which would not only enhance the area, but also encourage more visitors with increased revenue for local businesses and our economy,” she continued.

“These latest discoveries following investigations will prove beyond doubt the nature of life, both religious and community, how they lived and for how long, what they ate, how they survived and how they protected themselves from armed invaders.”

Miss Ritchie added: “I look forward to such outcomes and hope that the local museum will be able to document them.”

The former MP said special congratulations must go to Dean Henry Hull, Dr Mike King from the Down County Museum and to Mr Sloan and the archaeologists from Queen’s University Belfast in allowing this work to take place and in enabling an increase of the knowledge of this site where digging has resumed.