I’ve previously discussed the Rothwell medieval charnel chapel and ossuary project before on the site, but I just wanted to highlight another open day coming up on the Saturday 28th of June at Holy Trinity church in the village of Rothwell, near Northampton, for this great site. The ossuary at Rothwell is one of only two or three surviving medieval charnel houses in the UK, so it is a fantastic and rare opportunity to visit this wonderful site and to learn about the history of the church and it’s importance in understanding medieval funeral and mortuary archaeology.
There will also be University of Sheffield researchers there on the day, talking to members of the public about what human osteologists can tell from the human skeletal itself, and of the recent bioarchaeological and historical research that continues to be carried out at Holy Trinity itself. Jennifer Crangle, a doctoral candidate at the University of Sheffield who established and is leading the research at the chapel as a part of understanding the post-depositional treatment of human remains, will be organizing the event along with Dr Elizabeth Craig-Atkins of the archaeology department at the University of Sheffield (Crangle 2013). The team on the open day will also include a number of past and present researchers from the archaeology department from the University of Sheffield. I, too, will be present helping by talking to members of the public on how to age and sex skeletal remains of individuals from the archaeological record. It is something I am deeply looking forward to.
The open day is part of the project to help understand the osteological remains present at Rothwell and to introduce members of the public to the human skeletal and what we can tell about individuals and populations from the archaeological record. The open day will include crypt tours, where the stacked remains of medieval individuals (consisting of rows of crania and stacks of femora, amongst other bones) are stored alongside church tours of the early 13th century building. The event will also be host to a number of family friendly activities which are focused on understanding what the human skeleton can inform us of. This will include:
An Exploded Skeleton, with attempts made to piece the individual back together.
Mr and Mrs Bones, to see if there are differences in male and female remains and why this may be.
Old Bones, on how the skeleton changes as an individual ages and how this can effect the individual person.
My Aching Bones, detailing which diseases can affect the skeleton and which may be visible on skeletal remains themselves.
The research at the Rothwell ossuary and crypt is part of an ongoing and long term study into understanding the skeletal remains and their physical condition at the site. This involves trying to ask what the bones are doing in the crypt in the first place, why they were placed as they were and what their function was by being placed in such a way. The second major aim is to try to understand the composition of the stacked remains, highlighting the fact that it is not just the crania and femora but also many of the bones in the skeleton that are present in the stacks, as well as animal bones. The third aim is to investigate where the people who are present in the crypt came from. This includes the osteological analysis of the bones themselves for composition and for preservation levels, as well carrying out a statistical analysis on the bones using measurements based on anatomical landmarks to help indicate what populations/geographic areas the individuals came from. The fourth major aim is to ask in what way new technology can help and supplement the standard osteoarchaeological approaches used by bioarchaeologists. At Rothwell this has involved laser scanning the remains to produce 3D images, which is helping to promote the non-movement of some very fragile bones (Garland et al. 1988: 246) and highlight the value of new technology in human osteology (Gonissen forthcoming).
The importance of understanding the post-depositional movement and composition of the skeletal remains at Rothwell is really important as the site itself is not environmentally stable for the long-term storage of the remains. By investigating the physical remains at Rothwell and understanding the funerary context that they were used in, it is hoped that the project can initiate and produce a more stable environment for the remains to be stored in, whilst also documenting mortuary behaviour that has largely gone under-studied when historians and osteoarchaeologists have studied the skeletal remains of individuals in the English medieval period.
In a curious way the Rothwell project has been highlighted on this site a few times, in blog interviews and in a number of posts on conferences, so it will be great to finally visit the site myself to see the stacked remains of medieval individuals and also to talk to members of the public about the real value of understanding human remains.
- Read about the site and its archaeological importance in a previous post on this site.
- Further information and regular updates can be found here on the Rothwell Charnel Chapel and Ossuary Project Facebook site.
Crangle, J. 2013. The Rothwell Charnel and Ossuary Project. Past Horizons. Posted 3rd August 2013.
Garland, A. N., Janaway, R. C. & Roberts, C. A. 1988. A Study of the Decay Processes of Human Skeletal Remains from the Parish Church of the Holy Trinity, Rothwell, Northamptonshire. Oxford Journal of Archaeology. 7 (2): 235-249.
Gonissen, J. 2013. New Tools in Anthropology: An Evaluation of Low-Cost Digital Imagery Methods in 3D Photogrammatry and Reflectance Transformation Imaging Applied to Fragile Osteological Material with Limited Access: the Case of Rothwell ossuary (Northamptonshire, UK). Unpublished MSc Thesis. The University of Sheffield.