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Guest Post: Launch of the University of Sheffield Rothwell Charnel Chapel Project Website by Greer Dewdney & Jennifer Crangle

16 Apr

Greer Dewdney is a graduate intern on the Rothwell Charnel Chapel Project, which is run by the University of Sheffield’s Department of Archaeology in conjunction with Holy Trinity Church.  A graduate of the department, Greer’s role is to help facilitate the project through its various stages.  Dr Jennifer Crangle, a University of Sheffield graduate and a Workers’ Educational Association tutor, is the project initiator whose doctoral research it is based upon.  Her research focuses on funerary archaeology and human osteology, with specific reference to medieval period England and Europe and a focus on the funerary treatment and the curation of the dead, both physically and ideologically.  Joe Priestly is an undergraduate student in history and archaeology at the department and also a freelance documentarian.  He acts as the project’s media designer and built the project website.

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The Rothwell Charnel Chapel Project is a joint venture between the University of Sheffield’s Department of Archaeology and Holy Trinity Church at Rothwell, in Northamptonshire, which aims to further understanding of the Medieval ossuary beneath the church.  The ‘bone crypt’ as it is known to local Rowellians, is one of only two sites in England with a Medieval charnel chapel where the structure remains intact and with human remains in situ (the other is at St. Leonard’s Church in Hythe, Kent).  The Project was begun as a result of Dr. Jennifer Crangle’s PhD research, and since then has been continuously expanding to address the many and varied areas of interest that have arisen in the investigation of this almost unique archaeological site.

One of the main areas of focus for the project currently is the creation of a ‘digital ossuary’.  This is being produced through collaboration with the Computer Sciences department and the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) at the University of Sheffield.  By taking a 3D laser scanner into the crypt and strategically positioning it around the ossuary to take multiple scans, a point cloud has been generated which accurately records the ossuary in three dimensions.  This point cloud is what can then be processed and refined into a full 3D digital model, which can be viewed and explored by people through a computer, so that the fascinating and engaging experience of visiting the bone crypt is no longer restricted to people who can get to Rothwell and have good enough mobility to tackle the stairs.  This research was presented at this year’s CAA (Computer Applications & Quantitative Methods in Archaeology) conference in Oslo, Norway, by Jennifer Crangle and Peter Heywood.

rothwell site

The new website introduces the background to the site and the aims of the project. All images courtesy of Joe Priestly.

Another of the current focuses is an attempt to secure some dates for the bones in the crypt, as obviously the question of when they date to is foremost in the minds of many of the researchers and local residents.  Recently, some surface samples were taken for CHRONO, the C14 radiocarbon dating service at Queen’s University Belfast, to test the nitrogen content of the material.  These have determined that the bones are well-preserved enough for radiocarbon dating to be feasible.  With kind permission of the Church Council, five full samples will be taken to be tested (again at Queen’s University), so hopefully there will soon be some more concrete ideas of when some of the remains are  from.

Although this won’t tell us when the bones were deposited in the charnel chapel, it will answer one of the most frequently asked and longstanding questions in the site’s history.  The dates could give us some further insights, however, into the use of the charnel chapel and how it was perceived by Rowellians; for example, if one or more of our samples date to the 1700s or later, then they had to have been brought in after the site’s rediscovery circa 1700.  This illustrates the continued belief, that the charnel room was a suitable place for depositing bones, even if it wasn’t being used as a charnel chapel in this time period.  As a part of this any and all results from the radiocarbon dating are going to reveal so much more about the charnel chapel than we currently know.

Recently the project was awarded funding from the University of Sheffield Engaged Curriculum, and this has enabled the hiring of 3rd year Archaeology & History undergraduate student Joe Priestley.  Joe designed and built the project website, as well as providing invaluable services in photography and documenting events.  This strand of the work has created a great relationship between the people of Rothwell and given them, and others from across the world, the ability to interact with, and further, the research happening at this fascinating and unique site.

Further Information

  • Find out more on the Rothwell Charnel Chapel project website, where the history of the site is discussed alongside the current research aims.  You can also take a video tour of the church and chapel itself with the researchers and members of the church involved with the project.  Keep an eye out on the site for open day tours of the site with the University of Sheffield researchers and the church representatives.  Typically these are held yearly but expect the project to pick up pace and introduce further open days as appropriate. 
  • Check out the Facebook group where we regularly post updates about our research and get involved with the project.  We also welcome feedback, so please do get in touch with questions or ideas.
  • Check out a previous These Bones of Mine photography essay on Rothwell from the 2014 open day.  The post delves into the background of the site and highlights what research has taken place over the years at Rothwell and the context for the current University of Sheffield research project.

Selection of Previous & Current Research on Rothwell

Crangle, J. N. 2013. The Rothwell Charnel Chapel and Ossuary Project. Past Horizons. Published 03/08/2013.  Accessed 14/04/2016. (Open Access).

Crangle, J. N. 2016. A Study of Post-Depositional Funerary Practices In Medieval England. University of Sheffield. Unpublished PhD/Doctoral Thesis.

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). University of Sheffield. Unpublished MSc Thesis. (Open Access).

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

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.

rothwell

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.

Russian Magic Tales

11 Feb

Lately I have been reading Catherine Merridale’s Red Fortress (2013), an excellent and well researched book on the history of the Kremlin and of Russia at large.  So far I am only half way through the book but I am thoroughly enjoying it.  I’ve written briefly before about reading Russian literature (specifically Gogol, Platonov, Sholokhov, Solzhenitsyn and Tolstoy), but I realised recently my small bedside pile of books has become a small mountain, swelling as it has with a glorious mixture of archaeology, osteology and fictional offerings.  Never being able to resist a bookshop I also added Applebaum’s Iron Curtain (2013) to it, thinking that it would make a particularly good companion piece to Merridale.

On a separate trip to the library I happened to come across Chandler’s 2012 collection of Russian magic tales (which are often termed as Skazka in Russian).  Taken from a variety of Russian authors who span across three centuries, the book represents the authors who had collated and collected the tales and then wrote them down in their own hand.  I have never particularly been into magic tales or folk stories, but upon delving into this collection I found I couldn’t really resist not borrowing the volume.  It also makes a beautiful companion piece to the above two history books, grounding me as it does in the oral cultural tradition of folk tales that have been told for centuries, and in some cases for millennia, in Slavic populations.  The tales are also the perfect length to digest and read through on train journeys, and provided a welcome relief from my somewhat heavier archaeological readings.

babayagaivanbilibin

A representation of Baba Yaga by the artist Ivan Bilibin. In Russian and Slavic folklore Baba Yaga is an ambiguous and often ferocious older women who lives deep in the forest, either helping or hindering those who seek her out. Along with Koschey the Deathless, Vasilisa the Beautiful and other colourful characters, Baba Yaga often pops up in the folk tales of Eastern Europe/Russia. (Image credit: Ivan Bilibin).

I have really come to enjoy reading Chandler’s collection of skazka, particularly in the arrangement of the book itself which forms a readable narrative of the historical documenting of the skazka and of the re-working of some of the skazka by selected Russian authors themselves.  This approach not only highlights the interesting form and content of the tale itself but also briefly documents the historical and cultural context that the author worked in to produce or collate the tale.  Generally the skazka can be viewed as one of three general presentations: scenes from real life, magically tales or tales involving talking animals.  Often they can be mixed but they often include characters (such as Baba Yaga and her three knights) that are used repeatedly in a wide variety of circumstances.

In general folk tales are a valuable cultural resource in a few senses of the term.  Firstly, they are essential in helping to understand cultural modes of oral transmission.  This can be identified in two ways, by either understanding differences at regional or national levels between tales and in parsing, or understanding, the developing identities by solidifying through oral repetition a unifying myth or theme (Chandler 2013: x).  Secondly, they can of course also imbue moral and ethical lessons to the listeners or participants, particularly in the role of individuals in societies (Forrester 2012: 427).  Thirdly, it must be noted that some of the tales are pretty vivid in their detail of the character traits and actions, but this is the fun of reading and hearing the tales.  (I recommend reading them out to get a sense of what the oral tradition was like).  These are real and deeply developed characters that although may change their actions in some aspects from tale to tale, they still largely retain their purpose and description or function.

All in all I am glad I stopped to read through a few of the tales in Chandler’s book at the library, as I feel it has made me appreciate the work of some of my favourite authors a whole deal more.  By making me familiar with several important folk characters in the Slavic folk world, the deeper meaning of some of the recurring characters and folk myths that pervade through Russia’s literature becomes evidently clear.  This is especially the case when I originally read Platonov’s The Foundation Pit (2010), a novel that he wrote during the early Soviet period which includes many allegorical and frank representations of the oral folk body of work.

To my mind folk tales in general are a pivotal part of the rubric of culture, a one that sadly is often missing in the archaeological record.  So if you find yourself on an excavation this summer in the middle of nowhere, why not make a fire, grab a few drinks and tell tales to keep an oral tradition alive?

Bibliography

Applebaum, A. 2013. Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe. London: Penguin Books.

Chandler, R. (ed.). 2012. Russian Magic Tales from Puskin to Platonov. London: Penguin Classics.

Forrester, S. 2012. ‘Baba Yaga: The Wild Witch of the East’. In Chandler, R. (ed.) Russian Magic Tales from Puskin to Platonov. London: Penguin Classics.

Merridale, C. 2013. Red Fortress: The Secret Heart of Russia’s History. London: Allen Lane.

Platonov, A. 2010. The Foundation Pit. London: Vintage.

‘A Field In England’: A Trip Into The Psychotropic 17th Century

16 Jan

“I’d give anything for a good stew and a belly full of beer” announces one character shortly into the 2013 feature film A Field In England.  So may the audience at the closing credits of this delightfully dark, thoughtful and surreal film, having endured a turbulent 91 minutes in mid 17th century England wracked by an off-screen civil war.

Directed by Ben Wheatley, with a script by Amy Jump, A Field in England depicts the short journey of a ramshackle group of four men (Whitehead, Friend, Cutler and Jacob) who, having been traumatized and disillusioned by blood shed in civil war riven England (1642-1651 AD), desert the battlefield and seek solace searching for a fabled ale-house instead.  Only to their displeasure do they find that, during their desperate ramble, they come under the somewhat demonic spell of O’Neil, a man hellbent on finding treasure in a field who subsequently forces the four deserters to prospect and dig for suspected gold.  This is a necessarily brief synopsis because the film simply has to be seen to be understood although repeated viewings are recommended, if not required, for this slab of a historical film that potently mixes psychedelia and surrealism.

fieldineng2

A poster for the film, which was released in 2013. The feature draws obvious creative parallels with the Hammer Horror productions, although influences can also be detected from such classic films as the Witchfinder General (1968) and The Wicker Man (1973) (Image credit: Mr&MrsWheatly).

Somewhat uniquely in British movie history the film was released simultaneously to the general audience at theaters, screened on Film 4, and made available both on video-on-demand and to purchase on DVD, all on the same day.  A Field In England was filmed entirely in monochrome and relies heavily on the dialogue to help drive the momentum of the action forward.

Having said that it is the film’s kaleidoscopic use of visual and sound effects that propel it into the surreal genre, with effective use of disorienting shots of the main characters helping to enforce the viewer to become uncomfortably close to all of them, whatever the audiences feelings on the characters motivations.  As the Guardian review of the film points out, it is the distinctive use of the films tableaux shots, long shots and often unexplained scenes that help to highlight and intensify the rare violent viscosity of the characters actions in the film itself (Bradshaw 2013).

Throughout the film there is a great earthly humour present in the dialogue throughout the film, which is richly veined with flashes of Shakespearean wit and character exposition.  Though it must be noted that the audience is never entirely sure on which side of the civil war that the characters each sit on.  Allusions to the fracturing of the fabric of society are noted throughout the film, both through the dialogue and through the monochrome visual effects used.  This is perhaps most notable during the breakdown of one the characters who has been indulging in magic mushrooms.  It has to be said that monochrome psychedelic images can be quite unsettling, but they are also extremely mesmerizing and effective, perhaps non more so than during Whitefield’s mushroom influenced experience.

fieldinengland

A still from A Field in England depicting the disturbing use of the magic O’Neil uses on one of the main characters.  In particular it is the use of sound during this tableaux scene that really lifts it as a whole, making it both distinctly uncomfortable but also unnervingly rather watchable.

As stated above the film does contain rare instances of fairly graphic violence, but it is largely in the form of interpersonal violence conducted between the small group of relative strangers that form the core of the characters in the film (minus the introductory scene).  Interestingly, for me at least, there were occurrences of firearm injuries that demonstrated the rather horrible effect of neat entry wounds and the large exit wounds that projectiles can inflict if they exit the body (Aufderheide & Martin-Rodriquez 2006: 28).  I’ve tried not to give any spoilers in this quick review but, archaeologically speaking, the skeletal remains and funerary context of the individuals who perish in this film would certainly give the archaeologists some interesting theories to debate.  Although it would not be the first time that human burials from the English civil war have intrigued archaeologists as the mass grave site found at All Saints church in York demonstrates (McIntyre & Bruce 2010: 36).

A Field in England also combines the characters doubts of the existence of God with discussions of the occult as O’Neil displays a distinct attachment to magic and charms, professing himself to be almost a necromancer.  In one particularly entrancing scene he manages to wrap ropes around Whitehead and use him as a human divining tool to locate his buried treasure.  In another scene he is seen clasping a black ceramic dish that has a significant and deep meaning for him and he implies it can see into the past, present and future.  Merrifield (1987) and Brück (1999) have highlighted the significant wealth in the material archaeological record that can, on occasion, lead to valid interpretations of the importance of ritual functionality and the role of magic in historic and prehistoric societies.  This is worth keeping in mind, particularly with A Field In England, as the film demonstrates the intermingling of the Christian faith with pagan practices, a probably common feature of medieval and late medieval England (Gilchrist 2008: 153).

In a variety of ways the film also reminded me vividly of Andrey Platonov’s novel The Foundation Pit.  This was particularly evident during the last third of the movie where the nature of the treasure is revealed for, as in both Wheatley’s film and Platonov’s book, the pit is never simply just a hole in the ground but a striking metaphor for society, in this case one that seemingly subsumes the bodies of those that question it (Platonov 2010: 224).  The Foundation Pit also dealt deftly with the symbolism of the vying individual and the collectivist state and the struggle between the two, similar in tone to the backdrop role that the civil war plays in this film that so sparks the characters to openly question society, death and the absence of God throughout the feature.    

Although I thoroughly enjoyed watching A Field In England, it is clearly not a film for everyone.  There is no doubt that the non-linear nature of the film will confuse many (and leave unanswered questions proposed by the viewer), but the film openly welcomes repeated viewings.  Regardless of this, I would recommend the film highly as it challenges the convention that historical films have to abide by strict cinematic convention.  Indeed this film actively calls for open interpretation and reflective thinking.  This is a playful and subversive film, one that is not afraid to stray into experimental territory to expose the flaws of the characters and to highlight the fundamental changes in the English civil war era.

Bibliography

Aufderheide, A. C. & Rodriquez-Martin, C. 2006. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Human Palaeopathology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

A Field In England. 2013. Film. Directed by Ben Wheatley. United Kingdom: Rook Films.

Bradshaw, P. 2013. A Field In England – Review. The Guardian. 4th July 2013. Accessed 16/01/13.

Brück, J. 1999. Archaeology Ritual and Rationality: Some Problems of Interpretation in European Archaeology. European Journal of Archaeology2: 313-343. (Abstract).

Gilchrist, R. 2008. Magic for the Dead? The Archaeology of Magic in Later Medieval BurialsMedieval Archaeology. 52: 119-159. (Full article).

McIntyre, L. & Bruce, G. 2010. Excavating All Saints: A Medieval Church Rediscovered. Current Archaeology. 245: 30-37. (Full article).

Merrifield, R. 1987. The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic. London: B.T. Batsford.

Platonov, A. 2010. The Foundation Pit. London: Vintage.

Rothwell Charnel Chapel and Ossuary Project Open Day 10th August 2013

4 Aug

The archaeology department at the University of Sheffield have recently teamed up with the Holy Trinity Church at Rothwell in Northampton, England, to conduct analysis on human bones and public outreach at one of only two suspected surviving in-situ medieval charnel houses in the UK (Crangle 2013).

The site, a church built in the 13th century AD, houses the skeletal remains of hundreds (quite possibly thousands) of individuals who were stored and lain to rest, after burial, at the site during the middle and late medieval period. It is thought that following the dissolution of the monasteries and reformation in the 1600’s the charnel house fell out of use (Garland et al. 1988: 236).  The charnel house and ossuary were supposedly re-discovered accidentally by a gravedigger in the 1700’s, and during the 19th and 20th centuries numerous examinations of the bones were been carried out with the report of the declining environment and effect of fungi on the bones highlighted in Garland’s et al. examination (1988: 240).

The University of Sheffield’s new project aims to cover in-depth the osteological and archaeological material at Rothwell with plans for conservation of the site and skeletal material, whilst engaging deeply with public education and interaction, helping to highlight the inherent educational worth of human skeletal remains and their use in human osteology and archaeology (Crangle 2013).

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Figure 5 (right) and 6 (left) from Garland et al. (1988: 242-243) highlighting the individual skulls lined up on wooden racks and the femora piled up at Rothwell’s ossuary (note the distal area of the femora are visible).  Garlands et al. (1988) article discusses the histological and environmental conditions of a selected sample of bones present, indicating that demineralisation was occurring during their storage at the ossuary; although action has now taken place to stop further bone degradation, further conservation is envisaged by the Sheffield project.

Further to this the Rothwell church is holding an open day next Saturday (10th of August 2013) where the general public can come and learn about the fascinating site.  The open day will include an introductory talk about the project, guided tours around the Holy Trinity crypt, its ossuary and church itself, a hands on sessions of human bone identifying for the general public, alongside a small series of talks from lecturers and students at the University of Sheffield, detailing their research aims and project areas (Crangle 2013).  The research on the human bone material will be conducted at the University of Sheffield’s Osteology Lab, a well kitted out setting where plenty of bone experts are on hand for the research and analysis of the bone sample and the historical context of the ossuary remains.

Jennifer Crangle, a PhD candidate at the University of Sheffield, has wrote a fascinating article for the Past Horizons website explaining the importance of the functions and uses of charnel houses and ossuaries during the medieval period in Europe.  Especially important is the fact that Crangle (2013) has highlighted each aspect of Rothwell’s Holy Trinity church and the importance of  these skeletal remains for the church goers during the medieval period.  The article is well worth a read before making your way down to the church itself.

Sadly I cannot attend this event, but I would encourage everyone who would be interested to head down and check it out.  It is rare that human remains, especially an English in-situ medieval ossuary, are open and on display to the public (unless you happen to live near to some wonderful churches in the Czech Republic and Italy).  There are also opportunities to learn about skeletal anatomy first hand.  As such, it is a wonderful chance to learn about medieval burial and religious practices with dedicated and knowledgeable staff, whilst also learning about the beauty of the human skeleton first-hand.

Further Information

  • The open day begins on Saturday 10th August from 11am-4pm for guided tours and activities, with talks are from 6pm-8pm.
  • General public, families, students and academics are more than welcome!
  • Further information and regular updates can be found here on the Rothwell Charnel Chapel and Ossuary Project Facebook site.

Bibliography:

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, NorthamptonshireOxford Journal of Archaeology. 7 (2): 235-249.

Radio 4’s ‘Disability: A New History’

2 Jun

The BBC’s Radio 4 station has recently been running an interesting and enlightening documentary series entitled ‘Disability: A New History‘, which focuses on historical views and attitudes towards disable people and individuals in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries.  The series, which is presented by Peter White, runs to a total of 12 episodes with each episode lasting around 15 minutes.  The series tackles a different theme each week, with episodes from views on ‘disabled identity’ to ‘being and doing’ and ‘sex and marriage’, to the detailed case studies of disabled individuals and what they experienced.  The series will be available to listen to online via the BBC Iplayer website here for the foreseeable future.  There is also an online slideshow of historical images depicting varying disabilities discussed or mentioned in the show here.

One of the guests that has featured on the show so far is noted Medieval cultural historian Dr Irina Metzler*, who has extensively researched disability during the Medieval period.  In her first book, ‘Disability in Medieval Europe: Thinking About Physical Impairment in the High Medieval Ages 1100-1400‘, Metzler discussed the theoretical background of disability (via the social construct) and the physical impairment (via the physiological condition) during the Medieval period in Europe.  In particular her focus contextualizes disability within the medieval theoretical mindset and cultural concepts at the time through looking at relevant case studies, historical documents and written religious examples.

Released recently is the second part of this research, entitled ‘A Social history of Disability in the Medieval Ages: Cultural Considerations of Physical Impairment‘, which discusses the social and economic aspects of an individual’s disability, specifically regarding legal status and effects of law on disabled persons.  Further to this the research delves into the effects of aging and the physical deterioration of the body ‘together with (the) social, medical and technical attempts at amelioration‘, and is concluded by a discussion on the meaning of charity for the disabled person.

I am currently eagerly awaiting the arrival of Metzler’s first published book through the post, and I look forward to reading the second work, especially with regards to how the perception of disability in the medieval period can be compared and contrasted against the modern world’s cultural attitudes to disability and physical impairment.  In the meantime I shall listen to the rest of this interesting, lively and informative radio series.

*Post amended on the 27/06/13 to correct Dr Irina Metzler’s name.

Bibliography:

Metzler, I. 2006. Disability in Medieval Europe: Thinking About Physical Impairment During the High Middle Ages 1100-1400 (Routledge Studies in Medieval Religion and Culture). London: Routledge.

Metzler, I. 2013. A Social History of Disability in the Medieval Ages: Cultural Considerations of Physical Impairment (Routledge Studies in Cultural History). London: Routledge.

Museum of London’s Online Database Archive for Bioarchaeology

16 Mar

As research will shortly commence on my chosen topic for the dissertation component of the MSc here at Sheffield, I realise I will need standards and comparisons to compare skeletal remains, and in particular the expressions of pathological disease processes.  Communications with my previous lecturer at the University of Hull has highlighted the collections based at the Museum of London, which have a broad range of skeletons from a range of historical time periods with all relevant data available online.

The Museum of London’s Centre for Bioarchaeology provides numerous on-line resources for its own London based skeletal collections alongside detailed and valuable comparative data sets for researchers.  Via a quick registration, and a read through of their human osteology method statement, the user can have access to cemetery records dating from the Roman, Medieval and Post-Medieval skeletal collections from London, housed at the museum itself.  It is a veritable wealth of information including demographic, age and sex distributions in each of the cemeteries recorded and pathological/disease processes identified and photographed from the skeletal material.

Particularly useful for myself are the photographs depicting various pathologies on the the skeletal elements as they depict comparison points for individuals I hope to use in my own study.

As numerous known and unknown skeletal collections are gathering dust, hidden in museums or departments long forgotten, it’s important to remember that there are collections out there that are working hard to digitise their information and make it freely available to researchers.  In the future at some-point, I intend to make a little list of skeletal collections here in the UK.

A Poorly Reduced Fracture of Right Femur, Anterior View, From The Lower St Brides Cemetery, London, Dating From The 17th – 19th centuries. Site Code: FA090 Context: 1200 Frame Number: 1.

The above is a example of a pathology found in an individual, in this case the context of 1200, who was found in the Lower St Brides churchyard.  The Lower St Brides churchyard was founded because the original, linked to St Brides near Fleet Street, had became overcrowded during the 18th and 19th centuries.  It is thought that the population buried at Lower St brides came from a low socio-economic background (Kausmally 2008).  A breakdown of the 544 individuals analysed (out of of an excavated 606) can be found here, alongside a breakdown of the demography of the population uncovered and the age and sex estimates.  Interestingly, around 4.2% of the individuals uncovered had evidence for surgical procedures including craniotomies, alongside blade marks on ribs and vertebrae, which is highly suggestive of autopsies carried out on the individuals (Kausmally 2008).

With the rise of the internet as a valuable tool in archaeology, both enabling widespread discussion and swapping of data sets and information, it is worth reminding ourselves of the inherent wealth of the nature of skeletal populations.  As long as they are recorded, photographed and stored properly, skeletal populations can reach vast audiences by being digitized.  Valuable comparisons can be made in and between collections, and as Kausmally (2008) states that collections, such as the Lower St Brides, are crying out to be analysed in detail with other similar populations.

Online Sources:

Kausmally, T. 2008. Farringdon: St Brides Lower Churchyard.

Museum of London Centre for Bioarchaeology & Database