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A Brief Photo Essay: Rothwell Ossuary and Charnel Chapel

2 Aug

On the same trip as the Sheffield General Cemetery post below I had the opportunity to visit the Holy Trinity church in Rothwell, Northamptonshire, which houses a unique medieval charnel chapel and ossuary.  It is only one of two remaining charnel chapels and ossuaries in England known to have survived the 16th century English Reformation in the original location, with the other site being St. Leonard’s in Hythe, Kent, although others may possibly exist intact elsewhere (Jupp & Gittings 1999).  As previously mentioned on this blog I was at Rothwell to volunteer for the day, talking to members of public about the value of human skeletal remains and giving demonstrations of how to age and sex the skeleton.

On first glance the Holy Trinity church is perhaps surprising in its size for the first time visitor as it is a building that dominates the modern-day village of Rothwell.  The origins of the church can be traced back to the early part of the 12th century during the reign of Henry I when the church was built by Earl Roger of Clare.  It was subsequently much improved in size when it was acquired by the wealthy Augustinian abbey of Cirencester in the 13th century, appearing today as much as did in this period (Garland et al. 1988: 235, also see here).  During the 14th and early 16th centuries further extension of the church was completed, including the addition of a spire to the west tower and expansion to include a lofty sanctuary.  However the church faced ruin with the dissolution of the monasteries during Henry VIII’s reign.  In the late 17th century the building could not longer be kept at the size it was, so the north and south transepts were demolished.  Further natural disasters followed which reduced the building and left it in ruin, right up until the 1890’s when it was decided that the church needed to be restored, a process which was not completed until the 1980’s.

It was only during the 18th century that a previously much used charnel chapel and ossuary was unexpectedly re-discovered (Parsons 1910).  It is this ossuary, and its contents, that will be the focus of this brief photographic essay.  So once again with friends from the archaeology department at the University of Sheffield and my trusty Pentax S1a camera loaded with black and white film, I took my first trip down to the ossuary.

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One of the first things that visitors will notice, after having made the journey from the spacious church and down through the rather small and somewhat suffocating stone staircase to the ossuary and charnel chapel, is that the visitor is greeted with numerous crania.  These stare somewhat impassively out from their wooden shelves.  It can be cold in here, in a room three-quarters underground which is dark and damp.  It is the perfect environment for the post-mortem demineralization of the bones, and for the breeding of micro organisms (including fungi), which have infiltrated the human remains and remain active in their decay and physical degradation (Garland et al. 1988: 240).  The likely original entrance to the ossuary was probably from the outside of the south-west wall, which now has an 18th to 19th century porch covering the medieval entrance (Crangle 2013).  Originally a black and white photograph, coloured in Windows Media Player.

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The second immediate sight that the visitor will notice are the two large stacks of bones that dominate the centre of the 13th century building, which measures 9 meters long by 4.5 meters wide (Garland et al. 1988: 236).  It is often mistaken that the two stack collections contain just the crania and the femora of the human skeletons however this is not true as many individual elements are represented in the stacks, including the odd animal bone.  The bones were stacked in this way as a result of the changes made during restoration of the ossuary in 1911, where previously, and likely originally, the bones had all be stacked against the walls of the crypt (Parsons 1910: 484).  Later studies have shown that the bones are still undergoing macro and microbial damage as a result of the damp environment (Garland et al. 1988: 248).

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The osteological remains charnelled in the ossuary represent the secondary post-deposition movement of many individuals from the medieval period (13th to 16th century) from Rothwell and the surrounding area (Garland et al. 1988: 239).  Parsons (1910) & Garland et al. (1988: 247) have both noted the appearance of bacterial destruction within the bones and damage within the charnel chapel itself, with Garland et al. stating that further investigation and conservation is likely needed for preservation.  White & Booth’s (2014: 93) experimental research into bioerosion on pig carcasses highlights the importance of understanding the context of the depositional environment of bodies and activity of putrefaction.  In particular understanding the importance of the position of the body (surface exposure or primary burial) in relation to the role of the body’s intrinsic microbiota will leave specific diagenetic signatures in bone microstructures in the form of bioerosion (White & Booth 2014: 101).

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A close up of some of the crania on the shelves.  The osteoarchaeological research that has been conducted on the ossuary remains has all taken place with the charnel chapel itself due to the fragile nature of the remains and the ethical considerations of removing the bones from the place where they were intentionally deposited (Garland et al. 1988: 240).  The site is an important location for understanding the cultural heritage for Rothwell and for the country, as there is much still to be researched and investigated in the ossuary and charnel chapel and of its importance for the surrounding area and historical population (Garland et al. 1988: 240).  It is also a site that continues to see the latest implementation of archaeological and osteoarchaeological techniques to record and conserve sites and human remains (Gonissen 2013).

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The original black and white photograph of the first.  The ongoing Rothwell Charnel Chapel and Ossuary Project, spearheaded by the University of Sheffield doctoral candidate Jennifer Crangle, aims to investigate the funerary practice of charnelling at Rothwell and the long-term conservation of the skeletal remains.  Traditional and emerging osteological techniques are also being implemented in the study of the skeletal remains and their context.  This has included the use of CRANID, a statistical program used to ascertain the geographic origins of the individuals represented in the ossuary, and the use of 3D imaging techniques, such as photogrammetry and Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI), to digitally record fragile osteological material in-situ and then use the images produced for anthropological analysis of the remains (Gonissen 2013).

The above photographs of the Holy Trinity church ossuary are all largely focused on the crania present at the site.  Although this was not a deliberate attempt at capturing the individuals, I think it helps to highlight the fact that this isn’t just a random assorted collection of bones.  Far from being shunned or hidden, this charnel chapel and ossuary would have been known about and visited from the 13th to 16th centuries by the many residents of Rothwell and by the many visitors to the area (Crangle 2013).  I also hope, in part, that this photographic entry entices you to visit Rothwell to see, explore and learn about a now rather unique collection of skeletal remains and their historical context.

 Learn More

  • The crypt and ossuary at Rothwell’s Holy Trinity church is open to visitors each and every Sunday during the summer period, with church guides on hand giving out information.  It is also open every second Sunday during the winter months from October on-wards.  Everybody is welcome to take a look at this fascinating site.
  • The University of Sheffield regularly hold annual open days for the Rothwell Charnel Chapel Project at the church, with doctoral candidate Jennifer Crangle researching the ossuary as part of her ongoing research into the post-depositional treatment of medieval human remains.
  • More information on fascinating ossuary of St Leonard’s church in Hythe, Kent, (the only other known surviving medieval English ossuary), can be found here.

Bibliography

Crangle, J. 2013. The Rothwell Charnel Chapel and Ossuary Project. Past Horizons. Posted 3rd August 2013.  Accessed 29th July 2014. (Open Access).

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, NorthamptonshireOxford Journal of Archaeology7 (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.

Jupp, P.C. & Gittings, C. (eds.). 1999. Death In England: An Illustrated History. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Parsons, F. G. 1910. Report on the Rothwell Crania. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. 40: 483-504.

White, L. & Booth, T. J. 2014. The Origin of Bacteria Responsible for Bioerosion to the Internal Bone Microstructure: Results from Experimentally-Deposited Pigs. Forensic Science International. 239: 92-102.

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