Radiocarbon dates reveal long history of use at Rothwell Charnel Chapel.
Five new radiocarbon dates from the human bones housed in Rothwell Charnel Chapel have begun to reveal a long and complex history of use for the site, which spans the 13th-19th centuries.
This new evidence was first presented to local people at the Rothwell Charnel Chapel Project’s annual Open Day on Saturday 6th August and has been reported by BBC news and radio.
The radiocarbon dates, produced in collaboration with the 14CHRONO lab at Queens University Belfast were obtained from five crania from the shelves that line the walls in the subterranean chapel under the present-day Holy Trinity Church.
Three crania provided dates from the late 13th to early 15th centuries – suggesting these individuals lived during the period between c. AD 1250 and 1450. One of these medieval crania has osteological evidence for perimortem trauma in the form of multiple radiating fractures, which indicates they died from a blow to the head. It has long been believed that the bones come from soldiers killed during battle, but we have only found this one example for traumatic injury. Moreover, the bones in the ossuary belong to men, women and children so are unlikely to be a military group.
Two crania provided dates from the 18th and 19th centuries and could be as little as a century old. One of these crania shows evidence for anatomisation, likely from an autopsy, which also points to a post-medieval date. Two of the five samples providing such recent dates was unexpected.
The dating evidence helps refine the chronology of the site, and allows us to more confidently evaluate the various theories about the origins of the bones and role of the chapel. One theory suggests the bones were gathered prior to the building of the room, which was undertaken simply to provide a place for storage. Our dates suggest otherwise. The people we dated lived during the period of use of the charnel chapel, not before.
The long sequence of dates we have obtained, spanning over 700 years, indicates a long-term engagement with the site. Human remains were deposited across the entire medieval period until the site’s closure during the Reformation, and then further bones were added after the supposed 18th-century rediscovery of the site.
In the future, research will need to focus not only on medieval religious practice to explore how the site functioned but also on how more recent people have perceived, and engaged with, the charnel chapel. During the medieval period, we believe the site provided a place in which prayers for the souls of the dead could be said in the physical presence of their bones, but how did this purpose evolve over time?
The dating project was followed by BBC Look East and BBC Radio Northampton.