Although the bulk of our work during this Volunteer/Visitor Inclusion Project (VIP7) is focused on pottery, every Tuesday in the Archaeology in Action gallery, we have a table of Human Remains out on display too.
The skeletal remains all come from the same site as the pottery – Newgate Street (see earlier blog about the site by clicking here: GPO75). When reaching deposits relating to the early medieval period, the archaeologists found the remains of the parish cemetery of St Nicholas Shambles. The excavation discovered 234 skeletons dating from the 11th & 12th centuries.
This excavation was one of the first major sites that produced human remains from the early medieval period and gives a fascinating insight into the lives of Londoners at this time. Here are five amazing things learnt from studying these remains:
1) There were 6 types of burial practices discovered; (i) the majority were simple burials, probably in coffins (some evidence of wood was discovered but for the most part the wood had rotted away.) (ii) several were buried with stone pillows for the skulls (iii) some were buried upon floors of crushed chalk & mortar (iv) a few were surrounded by mortared stones (v) four were lined with dry-laid stones and tiles (vi) one was laid on a bed of charcoal.
2) The general health of the people seemed pretty good, with little evidence of disease on the bones and 88% of the jaws discovered also showing no disease. However, several of the individuals suffered from nutritional disease such as osteoporosis (probably due to a lack of iron in their diets). Many of the skeletons also suffered from Osteoarthritis, especially the male skeletons, and this may have been due to lifting related activities. (Examples are on display at our table every Tuesday in Archaeology in Action until Dec 7th)
3) By analysing certain bones and comparing individuals (in particular the skulls and teeth of the skeletons) it was possible to suggest that some of them may have been related within families.
4) One individual seemed to have been smashed on the head with a sword! We have a piece of a right frontal skull fragment with a slice of bone slashed into it. Amazingly, it’s thought that the blow may not have proved fatal as the cut didn’t penetrate the full cranium, however, they probably didn’t last too long as the wound never healed properly. (This piece is also on display in archaeology in action every Tuesday until Dec 7th 2010)
5) One female skeleton was found with the bones of a full term foetus in her abdomen. The woman appears to have been around 22-24 years old and sadly, probably died in childbirth.
Burial sites and skeletons such as those found at Newgate Street, offer us fascinating opportunities to connect to the lives of Londoners that went before us; to not only get an idea of what their lives must have been like, but an idea of the care and attention that surrounded their life after death as well. I like to think that their memories are living on via the work the Centre of Human Bioarchaeology and MOLA Osteology carry out (for more blogs about their work click here: Osteology) and they would be pleased to know that over a 1000 years since they were walking the streets of London, they are bringing such incredible learning and enjoyment to hundreds of visitors each week.