Human Skeletal Collection

Our human skeletal collection comprises over 2,000 articulated individuals from numerous archaeological sites, as well as disarticulated and cremated material. The main assemblages that form our collection are as follows:

The Black Gate Cemetery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne:

  • 8th-12th century AD
  • Early Christian, Anglo-Saxon
  • Possible monastic origin
  • Excavated from the cemetery of the castle of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne between 1973-1992
  • Inhumation burials with no grave goods, predominantly in supine-extended positions and west-east alignment
  • 643 articulated skeletons (441 adult; 202 immature)
  • Another estimated 17 disarticulated individuals also recovered
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Archaeological excavations undertaken from 1973 to 1992 in the grounds of the castle in Newcastle-upon-Tyne revealed a cemetery, resulting in the recovery of 660 inhumation burials. The cemetery overlies the Roman fort of Pons Aelius, and is thought to have been in use from approximately 800 AD, and may have continued until the original Norman castle was built on the site in 1080 AD. Burial continued within the castle grounds beyond this date, until approximately 1168-78 AD. After these dates it appears there were only very occasional burials of individuals of religious importance, such as priests.

The cemetery is considered to be an important example of an early Christian Anglo-Saxon and Saxo-Norman burial ground in the north-east of England, and has possible monastic origins.

The extensive collection contains the skeletal remains of 643 articulated individuals (441 adult; 202 immature), and approximately 17 disarticulated individuals. This collection has been the subject of numerous MSc and PhD research projects, and a detailed investigation into the health and funerary behaviour of the Black Gate Cemetery population by Dr Diana Swales.

References:

  • Nolan, J. 2010. The early medieval cemetery at the Castle, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Archaeologia Aeliana 39: 147-287.
  • Swales, D.L.M. 2012. Life and Stress. A bio-cultural investigation into the later Anglo-Saxon population of the Black Gate cemetery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Unpublished PhD thesis. University of Sheffield.
  • Nolan, J., and Harbottle, B., 2017. The early medieval cemetery at the castle, Newcastle upon Tyne [working draft].

All Saint’s Church, Fishergate, York (“The Barbican”)

  • Multi-period skeletal collection of human remains
  • Archaeological excavations carried out between 2007 and 2008 revealed the cemetery of the ‘lost’ church of All Saint’s, York
  • 667 articulated skeletons (390 adult; 154 immature)
  • Disarticulated remains of another estimated 469 individuals
  • Most of the inhumation burials were in typical supine-extended positions
  • 7 of the articulated skeletons date to the Roman period, 547 are medieval (c.11th-14th century AD), and 113 were found in Civil War mass graves (c. 17th century AD)
  • The vast majority of the 113 individuals from the Civil War mass graves are males aged between 15-45 years old
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Archaeological excavations on the cemetery of ‘lost’ medieval church of All Saint’s in York were carried out between 2007 and 2008. The Barbican collection contains skeletal remains from 667 individual articulated human skeletons from multiple time periods. Seven individuals date to the Roman period, 547 to the medieval era (between c.11th-14th century AD), and 113 individuals were buried in post-medieval mass graves (c.17th century AD). The majority of those interred in the mass graves were men aged between 15-45 years old, and these burials have parallels to other post-medieval military graves. They likely date to the period of the English Civil Wars, and more precisely may be related to the siege of York in 1644.
While the majority of the medieval burials adhered to typical burial practices of the time (buried in supine and extended positions), one burial of a middle-aged woman was noted as being of particular interest. She was buried in a tightly crouched position within the apse of the church. This suggested that she may have been an individual of great importance, such as a church benefactress. It has also been posited that this woman was an anchoress, a deeply religious female hermit, who lived in solitude in a separate cell or hut in the church and provided spiritual guidance and religious advice through a small window in her door. The skeleton of this middle aged woman showed she had suffered from severe and debilitating osteoporosis and syphilis. Based on existing records, it is possible that she may have been a renowned anchoress Lady Isabel German, who lived in All Saint’s Church between AD1428 – 1448.
The Barbican collection has been the subject of numerous MSc and PhD research projects.

References:

  • Bruce, G., and McIntyre, L. 2009. Mass Graves at All Saints Church, Fishergate, York. York Historian 26: 79-84.

The Church of St Hilda, Coronation Street, South Shields:

  • 18th-19th century skeletal collection
  • From the north-east of England
  • Lower middle class population
  • Excavated from the cemetery of St. Hilda’s church in 2006-2007
  • 204 articulated skeletons (114 adult; 90 immature)
  • Large quantity of disarticulated human skeletal material
  • Three distinct burial horizons, one of which may have been used for unconsecrated burials
  • Evidence for coffined burials

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St Hilda’s Parish Church is located in South Shields, to the south of the River Tyne. Excavations at the burial ground of St Hilda’s church began in 2006, and completed in 2007. While the burial ground had been in use since approximately 1402 AD, the excavation area relates to the southern section of the burial ground, and is split into three burial horizons that date to the 18th and 19th centuries. The western half of the lower burial horizon lay outside of the original boundaries of the cemetery, and may have been used for unconsecrated burials, such as unbaptised infants.

The Coronation Street collection consists of 204 individuals (114 adult, 90 immature), and is representative of a working class northern population. South Shields was a manufacturing and shipbuilding town that underwent rapid expansion in size and population density in the 18th/19th centuries. The individuals of this population are said to have been employed in local industries, such as the shipyards, gas works, chemical works, and in nearby collieries. It is likely that this population were exposed to issues of poor sanitation and polluted environments experienced by industrial centres at this time. The churchyard was closed in 1855 following concerns regarding the overcrowding of burials.
This rare example of an 18th-19th century skeletal collection from the north-east of England has provided a valuable contribution to numerous MSc and PhD research projects, providing insight into life and health in northern industrial centres.

References:

  • Raynor. C., McCarthy, R., and Clough, S. 2011. Coronation Street, South Shields, Tyne and Wear. Lancaster: Oxford Archaeology North.
  • Newman, S.L. 2016. The Growth of a Nation: Child health and development in the Industrial Revolution in England, c. AD 1750-1850, Durham theses, Durham University. Available at Durham E-Theses Online: http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/11508/

The Newcastle Infirmary at the Forth, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

  • 18th-19th century skeletal collection
  • Excavated from the cemetery of Newcastle Infirmary in St. Hilda’s church in 1996/1997
  • First medical burial ground to be excavated in the north of England
  • Original excavation yielded 204 articulated skeletons (114 adult; 90 immature), majority of these now reburied
  • 41 individuals (39 adult, 2 immature) still curated by the department
  • Evidence for coffined burials
  • Evidence for medical intervention, autopsy, and dissection

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Development of land to the west of the Central Station in Newcastle upon Tyne for the construction of The International Centre for Life led to the discovery of a former infirmary burial ground. The excavation originally recovered 210 articulated individuals (190 adult, 20 immature), the majority of which have been reburied. However, 41 individuals (39 adult, 2 immature) were retained for curation within the department due to a scarcity of northern skeletal collections, particularly from infirmary burial grounds.

The burial ground was in use between 1753-1845 AD by the Newcastle Infirmary (founded in 1751 and opened in 1753). Installations of infirmaries such as this in the large industrial centres of the 18th-19th centuries arose from a philanthropic movement to provide medical care to the ‘deserving poor’. Newcastle Infirmary in particular was formed for ‘The Sick and Lame Poor’ of the counties of Northumberland and Durham, and admittance was normally governed by letter of recommendation (Nolan 1998, 36). Patients with a variety of conditions could be admitted to the Infirmary for treatment (a large number resulting from accidental injury), but the exclusion list was also lengthy, and included pregnant women, children under seven years of age, the insane, and those suffering from infectious and incurable disorders. From 1830 the Infirmary also took on the functions of a nearby charitable institution that cared for prostitutes.

Considering the context of the site, it is not surprising that a large number of individuals recovered during excavation exhibited significant cases of skeletal pathologies. Examples included numerous fractures, cranial trauma, amputations (without evidence of healing), evidence for autopsy and dissection, as well as instances of metabolic disease, evidence for non-specific infection, and possible specific infections such as tuberculosis and syphilis.

While only a proportion of the original excavated assemblage remains within the Department of Archaeology, University of Sheffield, they are still representative of a unique collection of Infirmary patients from a northern-based institution. Historical documentation from the time (in the form of infirmary burial registers, and admissions and discharge books), the original skeletal reports, and the current assemblage housed at Sheffield combined form an important resource for the study of medical/surgical interventions, infirmary admittance strategies, and general health and disease in the 18th-19th centuries.

References:

  • Nolan, J. 1998. The Newcastle Infirmary at the Forth, Newcastle upon Tyne. Volume I. The archaeology and history. Northern Counties Archaeological Services.
  • Boulter, S, Robertson, D.J., and Start, H. The Newcastle Infirmary at the Forth, Newcastle Upon Tyne. The Osteology: People, Disease and Surgery. Archaeological Research & Consultancy at the University of Sheffield. Series in Historical Archaeology.

Carver Street, Methodist Chapel, Sheffield

  • c.19th century skeletal collection
  • Excavated from the Carver Street Methodist Chapel burial ground in Sheffield city centre
  • Non-conformist burial ground
  • 106 individuals (74 adult, 32 immature)
  • Evidence for coffined burials
  • Burial registers (1806-1855) held at Sheffield City Archive

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The Carver Street Methodist chapel (now converted into a public house) was built in 1805, and located in the heart of Sheffield city centre. Excavations ahead of its conversion took place in 1999, resulting in the recovery of 106 individuals (74 adult, 32 immature) with coffins, fittings, and other finds, and a large quantity of disarticulated skeletal material.

This Wesleyan Methodist chapel served a large congregation in Sheffield in the 19th century, and was the primary location for non-conformist burials in the city. Its records indicate that burials likely took place from 1806-1855, with an estimated 1,600 individuals interred in its grounds. Like many non-conformist cemeteries from this time, it is likely that the burial population consisted of a mix of middle to low status individuals.

Skeletal collections from 19th century northern industrial centres are relatively rare compared to their southern counterparts; therefore the Carver Street collection provides valuable insight into England’s industrial communities.

References:

  • McIntyre, L. and Willmott, H. 2003. Excavations at the Methodist Chapel, Carver Street, Sheffield. ARCUS 507

The Parish Church of St Mary and St Lawrence, Bolsover

  • Parish church burial ground
  • Excavated between 1991-1992
  • 70 individuals (40 adult, 30 immature)
  • 8 individuals likely 11th-13th C
  • 8 individuals likely 18th-19th C
  • Majority of individuals of currently unknown date due to prolonged cemetery usage and extensive intercutting
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The parish church of St Mary and St Lawrence is situated in Bolsover, a small market town in Derbyshire. Prior to conservation work on the tower of the church, archaeological excavations were undertaken in 1991-1992 in the areas surrounding it. These excavations resulted in the recovery of a large assemblage of human remains. In total, the Bolsover skeletal collection consists of 70 individuals (40 adult, 30 immature).

Due to assumed prolonged use of the cemetery, and resultant intercutting of burials, only a few of the burials could be ascribed to defined time periods. Eight skeletons are thought to have been buried sometime between the 11th-13th centuries, and eight during the 18th-19th centuries. For the remainder, burial context could not be determined.

References:

  • Foster, P. 1992. Excavations at the Parish Church of St Mary & St Lawrence, Bolsover 1991-1992. Unpublished archaeological report.

St Lawrence’s Church, Warwick

  • Parish church burial ground
  • 12th-14th C
  • Excavations in 2009 and 2015
  • Approximately 151 individuals
  • Additional disarticulated skeletal material
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In 2009 excavations ahead of residential development on a plot of land in Warwick revealed the remains of St Lawrence’s Church, the ruins of which were dismantled by 1703 AD following its closure in 1410 AD. The excavation resulted in the recovery of a large number of burials and disarticulated skeletal material from the area to the north of the church. Dating evidence is suggestive of these burials occurring between the 12th-14th centuries.

Further archaeological investigation at the site in 2015 revealed an additional 21 burials.

London Road, Grantham

  • Medieval Christian cemetery, likely 12th to early 16th C
  • A portion of the cemetery associated with a medieval hospital dedicated to St. Leonard in Spittlegate
  • Burials typical for the period
  • Mixed demographic profile consistent with a medieval hospital cemetery
  • Minimum number of 66 individuals (49 adult, 17 immature)
  • Three individuals with skeletal changes potentially indicative of leprosy

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In 1991 excavations at London Road, Grantham uncovered a portion of a cemetery associated with a medieval hospital, likely in use from the 12th to early 16th centuries. Excavations recovered 49 skeletons, and a moderate quantity of disarticulated material. Further analysis of the skeletal material indicated a minimum number of 66 individuals from this site. The burials at London Road, Grantham were predominately typical for the period (extended and supine, orientated east to west).

One of the earliest certain references to the medieval hospital in Grantham occurred between c.1255-1284 AD. Later records revealed its dedication to St. Leonard, a common dedication for leper hospitals during this time. However, hospital usage likely varied over time, and they also catered for the poor and elderly. Skeletal analysis revealed a demographic profile consistent with that seen in other medieval hospital cemeteries, being a mixed population with a high proportion of young males. Evidence of infectious disease and injury was seen in a number of individuals from this site, and notably three individuals exhibited skeletal changes potentially indicative of leprosy.

References:

  • Heritage Lincolnshire. 1991. Archaeological excavations at London Road, Grantham. Heritage Lincolnshire, unpublished report.
  • Coppack, G., Trimble, D., Boyle, A. and Craig, E. 2011. Spittlegate: The Medieval Hospital. In: D. Start and D. Stocker (eds), The Making of Grantham the medieval town. Heritage Trust of Lincolnshire: Lincolnshire. pp. 109-136.