This month osteologist Brian Connell talks about the human skeletons excavated at the City Bunhill burial ground, Golden Lane, London.
Archaeological excavations by MOLAS in 2006 uncovered 239 human skeletons from the City Bunhill burial ground. This nonconformist burial ground was in use from 1833 to 1853 and was very intensively used with over 18,000 burials taking place over a relatively short period of just 20 years. This was located in a poor area, with a high Irish immigrant population, many of whom would have been buried within this ground.
The skeletons provided a fascinating insight into the mortality and morbidity of an early 19th century population and provided a snap-shot of what daily life must have been like in this area, to the north of the City of London. The demography of the assemblage revealed an equal number of adult men and women and a high proportion of children. Just over half the individuals were under 18 years old when they died and the high mortality rate in children aged under five was most striking. Such a high rate is fairly typical for a 19th century urban population, particularly one at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum. The physical characteristics of the population were also assessed by comparing adult height, this data demonstrated that for both men and women there were no significant differences from other London groups.
The City Bunhill assemblage provided a wealth of information about the diseases from which the buried population suffered including metabolic, infectious, congenital and neoplastic conditions. There were several cases of congenital abnormalities (from birth), but the majority of these were minor and would not have been life-threatening or even symptomatic.
There was an unusual case of spondylolysis (separation of the posterior aspect of a vertebrae) (see picture) in a 7-8 year old child, this condition is normally seen in adults and only rarely in children. It is possible that this was related to occupation, perhaps demonstrating that young children were pressed into physical labour at a young age.
Most notable among the metabolic conditions was the high number of rickets cases. Rickets is widely reported in urban skeletal assemblages of this period. There was only one case of residual rickets in an adult, most cases were in young children.
A particularly unusual feature observed in the children with rickets was the high number of pathological fractures. Such fractures are not generally reported in other burial groups from London during this period. It is interesting therefore to consider whether these fractures were sustained entirely through a softening of the bones, or whether any other factors – such as harsh physical conditions or child abuse – may have contributed to the broken limbs of these sickly children (see picture).
Further details about this excavation can be found in the recent MOLA publication ‘The City Bunhill burial ground, Golden Lane, London: excavations at South Islington schools, 2006′ available in the museum shop and through the following link..