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 Digging up human remains

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normanhurst
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PostSubject: Digging up human remains   Mon 20 Feb 2012, 15:19

I’m watching a recording of Time Team and they’re exploring an unusual promontory on a stretch of the Northumbria coast near St Abbs Head. Right slap bang in the middle of the path they discover a skeleton in a very shallow grave… not shallow by burial but by erosion. Even as they peel the turf back it’s pulling bones up with it. They notified the police and they duly turned up to take statements, but are assured it’s a medieval burial.
Quite some time ago I was working in Wimborne town centre/square involved in converting one large shop in the square into two separate units…
Wimborne has in its centre and only a matter of yards from where I was working a beautiful Old Saxon church with Norman architecture and is famed for its unique chained library and the tombs of King Ethelred, the brother of Alfred the Great, as well as the tombs of John Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, and his duchess, the maternal grandparents of King Henry VII of England.
The rest of Wimborne’s architecture is regarded as one of the foremost collections of 15th, 16th and 17th century buildings in Dorset. Local planning regulations now thankfully protect dozens of original 16th, 17th and 18th century fronted shops and pubs which has preserved almost all of the original buildings.


My involvement with the job was to supply and fix all the supporting new steelwork. Other contractors had dug out the floor and dug trenches to pour new concrete footing for the new internal walls and supposedly the footings for the major supports to the new shop front and the two new door openings… supposedly.


They should have told me they weren’t ready as when I turned up they were still digging. Old building like that are very delicate and care must be taken if you don’t want upstairs to suddenly join you downstairs, and to that end the interior of the building was supported on a mass of scaffolding and props. While the contractors were digging I unloaded my steelwork onto the road outside causing a lot of rather unpleasant remarks from passing pedestrians.


Come lunchtime and the workforce had all disappeared up the pub… which gave me an opportunity to run my tape over the job and to discover the footings for the front columns were nowhere deep enough. Between the site foreman and myself we began digging and almost immediately began to dig up bones… taking no notice at first as we both just thought an old butchers shop maybe, however we soon came upon a skull, and then another. We stopped digging, the foreman called the police… they arrived and took one quick look inside the building, saw the remains and commented they weren’t interested as the bones were clearly over 25 years old and advised us if we were interested to contact the local Priest House Museum… they arrived… had a poke around with a stick rather uninterestingly and said.. mmm um, aaar… more plague burials… all in all it took no more than ten minutes and they left telling us to cast the bones back in the hole when its refilled.


Now I was rather taken aback at this casual attitude, and especially after seeing the Time Team reburials and the church service that went with it…


Has anyone else encountered anything similar… ?


PS… after the lunch hour the Irish labourers came back from the pub… saw the skull and bones and fled the site never to return…
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Islanddawn
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PostSubject: Re: Digging up human remains   Mon 20 Feb 2012, 16:09

I thought that Time Team church service was unecessary and just a bit over the top. But, we today are far more sensitive to death and it's remains than people were in the past. Possibly because death was common and there weren't convenient undertakers to clean and take care of our departed to be later presented to us in a nice box on the day of burial.

Dealing with the all the practicalities of death was part of normal life for everyone, I don't think our ancestors would have been too bothered by any very old bones that happened to surface somewhere.


Last edited by Islanddawn on Mon 20 Feb 2012, 19:20; edited 1 time in total
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ferval
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PostSubject: Re: Digging up human remains   Mon 20 Feb 2012, 16:22

It's a minefield and getting worse! Up here it's still reasonably sensible, you are expected to report any find immediately to the police, who are always immensely relieved to be told that the bones are old, not play football with skulls and generally keep any human remains separate from other stuff. When it comes to reburial, here's what Historic Scotland say

Quote :
Although not our normal practice, we recognise that the re-burial of late medieval, post-medieval or modern (typically post-Reformation Christian) human remains (with clear affiliations with established contemporary religious groups) will occasionally be considered appropriate. If
specifically requested to do so, we may agree to pass on human remains for re-burial after scientific studies have been completed, provided we are satisfied that the request is reasonable and well grounded. We accept the position of certain religions that have a strong need for immediate reburial of the dead (e.g. Judaism)
In England it's different and depends on where the bits and pieces turn up. If you can be bothered, this is English Heritage's volume on bones from Christian cemeteries. If you're not one of them, I'm not sure what the procedure is but they seem to be generally quite strict. There was a big hoo ha about bones from Stonehenge which it was thought had to be reburied after 3 years but the situation is a bit clearer and less rigid now I believe.http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/publications/human-remains-excavated-from-christian-burial-grounds-in-england/16602humanremains1.pdf
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normanhurst
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PostSubject: Re: Digging up human remains   Mon 20 Feb 2012, 20:48

Crikey ferval… one could say there’s hardly a stone left unturned in that link… hard going. You say it’s easier on your side of the border…?
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Gilgamesh of Uruk
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PostSubject: Re: Digging up human remains   Mon 20 Feb 2012, 21:16

When they converted a disused church into a branch of Tesburys near here, they had to go over the graveyard (and the crypt) digging up the bones and reburying them elsewhere. Of course, it reminded me of
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mFN8Wj37WYI
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ferval
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PostSubject: Re: Digging up human remains   Mon 20 Feb 2012, 22:09

if you're really interested Norman, here's the Scottish guidelines, http://www.historic-scotland.gov.uk/human-remains.pdf
so if you come across any old bones on any of your trips north, you'll know what to do.

You will encounter the wonderfully titled 'rights of sepulchre'.
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Caro
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PostSubject: Re: Digging up human remains   Mon 20 Feb 2012, 23:24

I don't know what the guidelines would be here but they would be strongly influenced by Maori protocols. And by the fact that European deaths don't go back beyond 200 years. Maori tapu beliefs mean that any Maori death or discovery of bones that might be Maori would bring about a ceremony to cleanse the area, which might be considered tapu and not to be used or approached for quite some time. I went looking for more information on this and came across this detailed academic site, perhaps only of interest to Ferval or people interested in the formation of Maori pa, of which there is rather a lot of detail. http://www.jps.auckland.ac.nz/document/Volume_66_1957/Volume_66,_No._1/Field_archaeology_in_New_Zealand,_by_J._Golson,_p_64-109/p1 (That colour is hard to see, but I don't suppose that stops it being downloaded.)

They say there is a paucity of good field archaeology here, except for Elsdon Best, but then mention the work of Les Lockerbie. We have Mr Lockerbie's collection on display at our museum (Maori implements, geological formations etc), and have someone expert in rocks cataloguing it all at the moment.

But I couldn't see anything about bodies found.
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Caro
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PostSubject: Re: Digging up human remains   Fri 06 Apr 2012, 05:15

Yesterday this was on the news. Archaic bones have been found (not perhaps very archaic on a European scale - 200 - 800 years old. There seems as yet to be just one lot of bones found, but they are very anxious to do the right thing, and will probably sent some to a university. The last sentence says they need to be laid to rest again and that has to be done properly. Here they certainly wouldn't be as blase as mentioned in Norman's op. Maori do take death very seriously.

Today there was also news about a family which had been upset at not being able to be present at a cremation of a relative, so they took the body home and burnt it themselves - a bonfire of two days. Police are not laying charges, though I can't feel this can be quite legal.

http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/6696931/Human-bones-found-in-Taranaki-cliff
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Gilgamesh of Uruk
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PostSubject: Re: Digging up human remains   Fri 06 Apr 2012, 14:46

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Triceratops
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PostSubject: Re: Digging up human remains   Fri 06 Apr 2012, 16:03

I remember watching a programme about Kennewick Man and the controversy that followed. At first the remains were thought to be of a European who died in the 19th century,until they were dated to about 9,000 years old.

http://www.mnh.si.edu/arctic/html/kennewick_man.html
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Caro
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PostSubject: Re: Digging up human remains   Fri 06 Apr 2012, 23:01

Was he an actual descendant, Ian? One of those comments said he had four legitimate sons none of whom had children. But there was mention of illegitimate (are the progeny from unmarried people in the past still called illegitimate now?) children, so maybe that was your colleague's connection.
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Gilgamesh of Uruk
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PostSubject: Re: Digging up human remains   Fri 06 Apr 2012, 23:10

Well, he was a Price, and claimed to be a descendant, but he may have been merely a relative (it's 30 years ago, so I may be a touch vague on details).
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Triceratops
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PostSubject: Re: Digging up human remains   Tue 22 Sep 2015, 13:57

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Meles meles
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PostSubject: Re: Digging up human remains   Tue 22 Sep 2015, 14:59

It was all over the major news outlets a week ago, but then it really isn't much of a story IMHO at least not yet. Until they do the all-important dating these remains are just very interesting, and not much more. Without a date it's still a bit of a non story ... are they thousands, or millions of years old? The implications are very different.
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Triceratops
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PostSubject: Re: Digging up human remains   Fri 25 Sep 2015, 13:55

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Triceratops
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PostSubject: Re: Digging up human remains   Tue 29 Sep 2015, 13:44

@Meles meles wrote:
It was all over the major news outlets a week ago, but then it really isn't much of a story IMHO at least not yet. Until they do the all-important dating these remains are just very interesting, and not much more. Without a date it's still a bit of a non story ... are they thousands, or millions of years old? The implications are very different.

There was an interesting documentary about this discovery on Channel 4 on Sunday evening. The new species has part ape/ part human characteristics.

This is obviously not the documentary, but Professor Berger is the lead palaeontologist on the site, and featured in said documentary;

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Triceratops
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PostSubject: Re: Digging up human remains   Wed 07 Oct 2015, 14:53

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PostSubject: Re: Digging up human remains   Fri 30 Oct 2015, 15:14

Not sure if this is the right thread to post this since it does not involve human remains;

Mesolithic house found near Stonehenge;
http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/oct/29/archaeologists-discover-mesolithic-eco-home-near-stonehenge
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Meles meles
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PostSubject: Re: Digging up human remains   Fri 30 Oct 2015, 15:26

Ooooo careful Trike, all those pseudo-academic descriptions of ancient "eco-houses" and "multi-cultural spaces", might well give ferval cause for a considerable rant.

Personally as a child I too remember making "camps" in the holes created when big trees fell over ... we also roofed them over with "eco" things like branches and reeds. Amazingly we also naturally knew to made our fire, not in the middle of the shelter but to the side of the entrance. Duh! If we'd have put the fire in the middle we'd have either burned the place down or smoked ourselves out. It's not exactly rocket science is it?. More recently as an adult, when on scientific expeditions, I've been called upon to cook meals for about a dozen people, every day, for several days at a time, over an open fire (or rather of course the closed-in hearth that one very soon learns to construct), ... in a cave/rock shelter, up a mountain, with not much fuel and little available water. So frankly this new "discovery" ain't that amazing.

If a gang of 1960s pre-teenage, urban urchins could work out the practicalities of shelter, fire, heat, and cooking (we regularly did baked potatoes, and once even did fried bacon and chips) ... I'm sure mesolithic people were able to do so too, just to survive  ... without being, as the article tries to make out, eco-aware, cool, right-on, palaeo-hipsters!

Rant over. Smile


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Triceratops
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PostSubject: Re: Digging up human remains   Fri 30 Oct 2015, 16:12

I know, Meles, it was the Guardian after all.

Staying with Stonehenge, party like it's 2500 BC;

https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn28333-stonehenge-builders-had-barbecue-feasts-at-nearby-party-centre/
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ferval
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PostSubject: Re: Digging up human remains   Fri 30 Oct 2015, 16:47

You're so right, MM, I nearly had a wee rant about this story when it came out - particularly so because of some of the even more ridiculous headlines it prompted like "Oldest house in Britain". Then there were the comments suggesting that previously it had been thought that the Mesolithic was entirely nomadic. Well, maybe a long time previously. Nordmann, I'm sure, is better informed than me about the Irish Mesolithic settlements like Mount Sandel then there's all the others such as Howick in Yorkshire and Cramond near Edinburgh.
To be fair, they may be playing this up because of the planned development there.

The other link has its own annoyances (I'm easily annoyed), the Durrington Walls pig feasts are old hat now and there's lots of research published on milk lipids in pottery shards from Barnhouse in Orkney and other places.

I'm turning into a bit of a bore, amen't I?
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nordmann
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PostSubject: Re: Digging up human remains   Sat 31 Oct 2015, 16:28

Getting back to normanhurst's bodies, I was talking recently to an archaeologist who was involved to a small extent with the CrossRail digs, mostly undertaken by MOLA but with some private firm participation. His own firm's contribution was basically to assess the legal ramifications of finds, something that changes almost from day to day in a venture with such huge archaeological scope as the CrossRail excavations in London. A typical example is the excavation of the foundations of Worcester House during the Stepney Green works, a well known site even before ground was broken so the legalities around the projected hold-up for archaeological purposes had been well planned and understood by all concerned prior to the work beginning. However all that went out the window when the same work turned up the even better preserved foundations of St John's gatehouse, a quite unexpected development made even more complicated by the then wealth of material which began to be found in the vicinity (check out the Tudor bowling balls made from rare South American wood below for a good example - aren't they exquisite?).



He also had to help out at Liverpool Street where three well publicised and really significant finds came to light within only a few months, all involving bodies. The first, and one that had been anticipated but just not involving quite so many human remains, was the Bedlam grave. 3,500 separate remains so far have been identified and there are still more coming. Most recently have been the 35 remains of victims from the plague that ravaged London in the year immediately prior to the Great Fire in 1666. In between were the most fascinating remains found, the oddly distributed disarticulate skulls which during the course of their assessment were dated first to early medieval and then proved to be in fact Roman era, and then first assessed to have been washed out from a nearby burial site in antiquity but are now shown to have been deliberately severed from the rest of their associated bodies and actually arranged in linear formation during an interment which as yet has everyone puzzled as to its significance and nature.

However the real problem for my friend's firm was to find a manner of excavation that would serve both archaeological and legal requirements, one of the latter being a consideration (that word is important) of re-interral with appropriate religious or civic ceremony. This is thorny enough with a handful of bodies, but with a number approaching 4,000 there is simply no precedent in the UK.

There is however a precedent in Ireland. Two in fact, both involving incidental discovery of mass graves associated with plague and famine, and one also including the difficult ingredient of having remains of potentially greater archaeological significance under the others, being of late Iron Age and Viking era. Irish law is very similar to UK law in respect of how these quandaries are resolved, both tending to limit themselves to recommended actions rather than prescribed actions, the legally binding portion concerned most with eliminating human remains' potential to be pertinent to a legal case which might have to be prosecuted with respect to people living. Once that is out of the way then the rest is down to compromise between the different parties who may wish to approach the excavation with very different priorities.

In the case of Liverpool Street one might say that archaeology, or at least archaeological logic won out - largely because CrossRail themselves are admirably committed to the archaeological aspect of the infrastructure work they are conducting. The Roman remains, by a huge distance both the least in terms of volume and the most in terms of disruption to the building work, are being afforded the greatest legal protection with regard to their archaeological excavation. The plague victims, none of whom can be individually identified, will be disposed of as a sort of "job lot" when they will be transferred to an appointed reburial site en masse and afforded a religious ceremony to mark their return to the earth.

The 3,500 Bedlam Hospital remains however (burials covering an almost 300 year span) will become the focus of a huge project involving at least three archaeological units, public volunteers, the Public Records Office, the London Corporation and already two Parliament passed amendments to the current law. The aim is to collect and correlate as many actual names as possible from the Hospital's and other records and attempt to match them if possible to specific remains using standard bioarchaeological methods. Where such matches are found then the remains, having now an identity, will be disposed of according to present custom and rights enforced by law. MOLA and CrossRail are jointly financing and overseeing this work, which no matter what way one goes about it will take a considerable time indeed (which itself leads to potential legal minefields regarding storage and responsibility for insurance and safety etc). The previous Irish experience of enforced compromise on these issues has been welcomed by all parties in this case too.

Maybe at the end of it all and by the time the "CrossRail effect" is properly understood and filtered out to all relevant authorities involved in these complex issues it may well be better able for the state to draw up comprehensive guidelines, if not actual statutes, that meet the actual "hands on" dilemmas these cases throw up in the real world. But in the meantime there is little beyond a limited protection of both the archaeologists' right to examine and the developers' right to build enshrined in law, and it is against this backdrop that the inevitable dilemma regarding human remains is often first encountered and must be assessed. Indecent haste due to the developers' needs to carry on with their work has often resolved the issue automatically without the more esoteric issue of "proper" disposal of the remains ever having to be addressed at all.
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Meles meles
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PostSubject: Re: Digging up human remains   Sun 01 Nov 2015, 15:24

Is the idea, or the accepted feeling, that we need to show great reverence to the remains of the dead, even when they are completely anonymous, unknown and unknowable, a peculiarly British thing? Italy, France, Spain, Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia etc. (all predominantly Catholic countries I note), have long had the custom of placing the dead in tombs, or crypts ... and then after a certain period of time turfing the bones out to make room for someone else. The removed bones are placed in an ossuary, a santified place, but there is no attempt to keep individuals discrete. All skulls are stacked here, all femurs here, etc ... and the little bones often went to make mosaics for the floor and walls. I wonder how their respective archaeological authorities approach the matter of disposing of human remains disinterred through building works etc? I sort of feel it would be different in these countries, especially seeing that one's own granny may herself only have a few more decades at rest in the family vault until she has to go and be stacked elsewhere as just a collection of anonymous bones.

eg the ossuary under St Mary's Church, Walda, Spain with stored bones from the 12th to 18th century piled up literally cheek by jowl:

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Vizzer
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PostSubject: Re: Digging up human remains   Sun 01 Nov 2015, 15:48

@Meles meles wrote:
Is the idea, or the accepted feeling, that we need to show great reverence to the remains of the dead, even when they are completely anonymous, unknown and unknowable, a peculiarly British thing?

I don't know about the rest of Britain but not many miles from where I grew up in east Kent there is a substantial ossuary in St Leonard's Church in Hythe. I had thought that it was a relatively widespread feature across England but maybe it's unique.
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PostSubject: Re: Digging up human remains   Sun 01 Nov 2015, 17:39

In London ossuaries were the solution to churchyards of limited size within the city which also harboured the corpses of the relatively well-to-do. The poor were more inclined to be simply buried upon, and upon, and upon, as time went on. The Great Fire in 1666 so ravaged St Dunstan-in-the-East's that the bones (estimated by then to have numbered around 5,000 parishioners dating back to the 12th century) were incinerated to the point that the resulting calcium powder, rich in nitrates, proved to be excellent and extremely commercial fertiliser. The sale of this helped fund the restoration of the church, meaning that St Dunstan's was one of the first to be back in business after the fire. By the time Wren's crowd got round to it all it lacked was a new spire, which he duly provided.

His spire survived the 1941 German bombing that destroyed the rest of the church, leaving only two of the main body's walls standing. In 1967 when it was decided finally to abandon all plans to ever restore the building and convert it into a park the workers doing the excavation stumbled upon the rest of the unsold fertiliser. It was decided to remove this as "human remains" and it was re-interred, along with more complete inhabitants of the graveyard, in a memorial graveyard in Highgate to which also were removed remains from its sister church All Hallows near the Tower. However its value as a nitrate for sale as fertiliser based on the volume was estimated by the history faculty connected to an Oxford university to be in the region of 30,000 pounds in 1967 prices, and this represented (they reckoned) only about one tenth of what the total deposit would have originally been. Fear of subsidence after the rebuilding began in the 1660s was the reason it had not been exploited.
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PostSubject: Re: Digging up human remains   Sun 01 Nov 2015, 19:46

This charnel house was found in the 1950s, again during repair work following Blitz damage, at St Bride's ("the journalists' church") in Fleet Street. It contains 227 human remains, all of whom were interred in the ossuary after Wren's renovation in the late 1600s. They have been left as they were found, though are accessible only for academic research or the like.



Although these are interred in a chamber dating back to Wren some of the remains have been shown from dating analysis to be much older, and this ties in with old records indicating that St Bride's pre-Wren structure had incorporated an older medieval charnel house. In fact the same 1953 excavation revealed the foundations of no less than six previous incarnations of the church dating back (it has been guessed by some) even to pre-Saxon times, the site probably having a Christian heritage originating in Londinium itself. Others point to the name (a pre-Christian goddess who was incorporated quite early into Christian lore in Ireland and then travelled with early missionaries from that land) to date the church's origin more realistically within the context of mid-Saxon conversions being undertaken by Irish missionaries known to have operated in the London region around the 7th century.

Either way the 227 extant charnel remains surely represent only a tiny proportion of the many bodies whose resting place in the church's small parcel of land had been recycled, by the time of Wren, for a millennium at least.
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PostSubject: Re: Digging up human remains   Sun 01 Nov 2015, 20:27

Vizer wrote:
I don't know about the rest of Britain but not many miles from where I grew up in east Kent there is a substantial ossuary in St Leonard's Church in Hythe. I had thought that it was a relatively widespread feature across England but maybe it's unique.

It is pretty unique, in that St Leonard's and the Trinity Church in Rothwell, Northants, are the only two remaining churches in England to have charnel houses whose function remained recognised throughout the Reformation and beyond so that they managed to survive more or less intact and with all their deposited residents up to the modern era. Many (such as St Bride's) simply bricked them up or stopped giving them much attention (many were even simply quite forgotten about, with the bones still there for this reason, though obviously not having been cared for). Many more emptied them out and put the space to other use.


Rothwell prior to the "cleaning up" of its charnel house in 1912

Early Reformation zeal in getting rid of charnel houses (they were considered a Catholic affectation) however had to give way to rather more practical considerations regarding where to store the dead with a limited supply of sanctified soil in which to bury them, especially in cities. London, for example, solved the problem several ways, sometimes municipally. At one point it was ventured that the Fleet river be covered over and the entire length within the city be used to accommodate bodies being bumped out of churchyards by recent arrivals. The idea (mid 1700s) actually went to a vote in the Corporation who approved, only to find they did not have jurisdiction over the Fleet (it lay just outside their City remit) and their plan was superseded by the disastrous attempt to turn the Fleet into a canal along Venetian lines. Their Plan B, to pay churches to re-use old graves and store the displaced remains in a more space-effective manner, probably accounts for St Bride's charnel house as discovered in the 1950s. Whatever records the church might have had concerning its existence and function had obviously been scant and long lost by the 20th century. No one by then even remembered that it was there.
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