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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.

Archaeology Day 2014: A View From Friends

11 Jul

Friday the 11th of July marks Archaeology Day 2014, a tremendous initiative designed to showcase the diversity of research and work that is found in the archaeological sector and industry across the world.  But rather than have this blog entry focus on me specifically, I wanted to present the view of a few of my friends that are involved in the archaeology community worldwide, whether they are a volunteer, a student or an academic, be they in it for the fun or employed in the commercial sector.  So without further ado here are a few of my friends and what they will be up to on the Day of Archaeology 2014!

So firstly we meet up with my friend Jennifer in Belgium, who has some skeletons that need examining:

“I am a graduate in Prehistoric archaeology, and in funerary archaeology and human osteology.  On archaeology day I will be conducting an osteological study on a skeletal collection.  Firstly there is a need to assess the completeness of the bones that were excavated in the Belgian town of Rebecq.  This excavation by the SPW (Public Service of Wallonia) is one of the fieldworks I took part as a volunteer in 2012.  The cemetery is early medieval, and the individuals seem to show a lot of pathological lesions.  The sex and age at death of the individuals is estimated based on metrical and morphological features expressed in the remains.  Understanding the health conditions and the demographic profile of the people buried in this cemetery will help understand how they lived in Rebecq in the Middle Ages.
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Jennifer Gonissen excavating an early medieval cemetery at Rebecq in Belgium. Photo credit D. Bosquet-SPW.

Besides that, I have also been helping at the lab for the Palaeoanthropology course led at the University of Brussels this academic semester.  I am also working on publishing my two master thesis.  Everything is done on a volunteering basis as there are very few paid opportunity for osteoarchaeologists in Belgium.  This does not mean that there is nothing to work on, as Belgium is rich in skeletal material excavated in numerous fieldworks across the country, a large part of which still has to be properly studied.”

– Jennifer Gonissen, an osteoarchaeologist based in Brussels.

Keeping with the skeletal theme we now turn towards Cheshire, England, where we find Alison helping archaeological students:

“While I often spend a lot of time at a desk for archaeology, this summer I am back in the field: from June to September at the Poulton Research Project field school in Cheshire. As there is a cemetery on site it is my role to oversee any excavation involving human remains. In addition to this, I also to teach students (from all subject backgrounds and levels of experience) how to identify, excavate, record, lift, and clean skeletal material.

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Students record a burial on site, before the skeleton is lifted. Photo credit Alison Atkin, with permission.

While it’s my job, I consider it a privilege to be involved in their introduction to osteoarchaeology – and thus far I’ve been nothing less than impressed with their enthusiasm for and insights into the subject.”

– Alison Atkin, a Doctoral Researcher at University of Sheffield, osteoarchaeologist at the Poulton Research Project and blogger at Deathsplanation.

After which we join David in Haddington, Scotland, as he balances his community and commercial archaeological work:

Currently the world of my archaeology revolves around 5 major suns, all equally bright and demanding.  The Skills passport is printed and being packed, with the final text added to the website,  BAJR is campaigning for more than minima, the preparations for fieldschools and training with Rampart Scotland are at warp factor 7 (days to go)  and of course Past Horizons articles never end.   Finally, and slipped into the mix is my commercial sun, three reports to be completed, two tenders to submit and a rather complex negotiation to tiptoe through.   Also helping to organise a medieval conference in Haddington in September and a new social enterprise archaeology group.   So all in all a fairly busy, but exciting time!”

– David Connolly, owner of BAJR, co-writer at Past Horizons and creator of the Archaeology Skills  Passport.

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David Connolly horsing about on an archaeology project – business as usual!

What is it like to work in the field as an archaeologist and what can it involve?  Kevin provides a breakdown of what he gets up to in the fields and offices of England:

“I am currently working with Wardell Armstrong Archaeology, as a casual field archaeologist out of their Carlisle office.  They have me doing a little bit of everything in terms of work, though mostly within the early stages of pre-planning on sites due for development, including surveys (mostly geophysics) and evaluations.

Unfortunately I have been told I am not allowed to divulge detailed information on current projects for obvious reasons, but I can talk about the projects I’ve been involved with recently that have been made public.  For example, I helped throughout most of the post-ex for the predominantly Roman site at Blackfriars, in Leicester; washing all the finds as they came back, helping to catalogue them, writing small-finds sheets etc., which was great because there were some very interesting finds.  Pretty much everything you would expect from a domestic, urban Roman site, complete with coins, copper brooches, various other types of jewellery, iron tools, hoards of pottery and colourful painted wall plaster.  There was even a couple of roof tiles baked with animal paw prints still in them, which were interesting, giving a very intimate snapshot of Roman life.

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Kevin building a snapshot of every day life by processing the archaeological artefacts.  Notice the regulatory Richard the III mug that can be found in every archaeologists office (click to enlarge!).

However, my primary role these days is with the geophysics team, travelling all over the country, Essex, Wiltshire, Staffordshire, Cumbria, Kent, Lancashire and on Archaeology Day I will theoretically be on the outskirts of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.  Nice and close to home.  As I said, I can’t go into details about the job other than it is in advance of a housing development.  Doing the geophysics itself is hard work.  I am not going to lie! We shall be walking, I’ve been told, through knee-high sugar-beet, which will make walking with the twin-probed magnetometers awkward at best.

I think I’ve done geophysics through every type of crop and across every type of terrain (and through every weather condition!).  Sometimes it’s quite enjoyable, other times, like I say, it’s bloody hard.  No doubt I will need to buy a new pair of wellies by the end of the second day.  That’s right, we wear wellies!!! Our company won’t supply non-metallic shoes, so we’re all wearing rubber wellies which are uncomfortable to walk in over long distances and very hot and sweaty in the summer heat! Fun fun!  I suppose the odd aspect to my doing geophysics is that I’m not a geophysicist, and I certainly have no formal training in geophysics.  I’m very much an archaeologist who has been pulled in to do the surveying work, learning on the job!”

– Kevin Horsley, a commercial field archaeologist with his hands and feet dipped into all the pots archaeology has to offer.

My undergraduate university friend Emily also enjoys the variety that life in archaeology has to offer:

“If I am not in the field digging evaluations or excavations with my team, I am in the office processing finds and preparing archaeological archives for museum accessioning.  This weekend I’ll be celebrating the Festival of Archaeology by heading down to the nearby Milton Keynes Central Library to talk to the public about archaeology and local finds! 

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Emily and company at Cotswold Archaeology processing and recording archaeological data, ready to archive and store material. Photo credit: Cotswold Archaeology.

I really enjoy both the fieldwork and post-excavation elements of my job, it is nice to have the variety and I feel one improves the other as it gives me a better understanding of the different aspects of commercial archaeology.”

– Emily Evans, field archaeologist for Cotswold Archaeology.

Is field work all there is to archaeology or can you get involved in other ways as well?  Robert provides a different view:

I was forced to leave the archaeological profession in 2011, mostly owing to the difficulties of providing for my family on ever diminishing wages, and the requirement to erode standards to the level that there was no longer a point in doing the job. Three years later I’m still in archaeology, but not in the way I ever expected. Today my ‘day of archaeology’ will involve leaving the house early and going to work in IT. Once I’m home in the evening and the kids are fed, washed, and put to bed do I generally get a chance to sneak off to my study and write.

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Robert Chapple hard at work writing about archaeology.  Read more about Robert, his desk and others (including mine) here!

These days the main drive of my archaeological writing is for my blog, the uninspiringly named ‘Robert M Chapple, Archaeologist’. I write about archaeological and heritage stuff that interests me, from days out with my family at ancient sites, to campaigning on a variety of heritage issues. However, the stuff that brings me the most pleasure right now are various accounts of lectures, conferences, and symposia – either written by myself or fellow conspirators – that I help to bring different aspects of archaeological research to a wide audience. It’s not what I ever imagined I’d be doing, but I’m still here and I’m still enjoying being able to contribute to the field.”

– Robert M. Chapple, whose work and blog can be found at Robert M Chapple, Archaeologist.

Ancient Egypt entices a lot of children and teenagers into studying archaeology but what is it really like?  Loretta presents us with a snapshot of where her research is at:

“I am due to start my PhD on ancient Egyptian and Sudanese ceramics this autumn at the university of Oxford; specifically looking at pilgrim flasks from the New Kingdom to the Roman period. This year, I have been working as an independent researcher and consultant, and a book I have consulted on, ‘Discover More: Ancient Egypt‘ has recently been published. This summer I am busy working on a project analysing infant jar burials, which I am developing into a paper.”

– Loretta Kilroe, an Egyptologist specializing in pottery who is based at the University of Oxford.

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Loretta working on documenting Egyptian pottery from a recent project with the British Museum in Sudan.

Heading over to Australia now, we have my good friend Lorna explaining a bit about her research and why it’s important:

“My PhD thesis, Towards a Bioarchaeology of Care: A contextualised approach for identifying and interpreting health-related care provision in prehistory, was finalised last year – I’ve included the whole of this cumbersome title because it’s a reasonable summary of my research focus.  Over the next twelve months I’ll be putting my efforts into improving and extending the bioarchaeology of care approach.  This will include refining the Index of Care – a freely available application, launched earlier this year, designed to support the four-stage bioarchaeology of care methodology (user feedback is enthusiastically solicited!); editing my thesis for publication (look out for Theory and Practice in the Bioarchaeology of Care in 2015); and helping to organise a special session – ‘Building a Bioarchaeology of Care’ – to be held at the Society of American Archaeology 2015 meeting in San Francisco (and at which David Mennear, the creator of this blog, will be speaking). 

1   Man Bac Burial 9 in situ

The first case study to apply a ‘bioarchaeology of care’ methodology focused on Man Bac Burial 9, a young man from Neolithic Vietnam who lived with quadriplegia for around a decade (see more here).

As time permits, I’ll also be trialing the Index of Care on new cases of past health-related caregiving; I hope to explore the experience of individuals from historic as well as prehistoric contexts, which will give me the chance to look at how information from archaeology conforms to information on care practice from available texts.” 

– Lorna Tilley, a visitor in the School of Archaeology and Anthropology at Australia National University.

From Australia we jump back to Belgium and Héloïse, who introduces us to her research interest in Benin pottery:

My name is Héloïse Meziani, I graduated from a Master’s degree in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium, in 2012; and continued on with a Master’s degree at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, in The Arts of Africa, Oceania and The Americas. I decided to enroll in this second MA to wider my opportunities in the “world art and archaeology” field. However, after this successful year in England, I came back to Belgium to unpaid internships as only opportunities. Jobs in our field are few and funded PhD hard to obtain.

On Archaeology Day, I will be continuing my volunteer internship at the Royal Museum for Central Africa of Tervuren, Belgium. I am currently studying pottery sherds brought back in February 2014 from the archaeological habitat site of Kantoro, northern Benin, by the Crossroads of Empire project team. My work consists in the systematic study of 2 Surveys; one of 283 sherds, another of 859 sherds. After inventorying, reassembling and imputing all of those shards in a database (by shape and decor), I am in the process of photographing and studying the diagnostic material to understand its use and its variation through time. We can already see a dichotomy between two types of ceramics: thick and large ones decorated using folded strip roulette or by cord, probably made for storage, and a finer, more polished ceramic, decorated with thinner tools, possibly used for serving food.

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Examples of pottery sherds from the above mentioned project. Pottery sherd survey II, 40-50cm, and second pottery sherd survey II, 80-90cm. Photo credit Héloïse Meziani.

My interests are in African pottery and beads (my UEA’s master’s dissertation was on a collection of archaeological beads from northern Benin), but also in Mochica’s ceramics (Peru). In the future, I am hoping to find a job (research or museum work) in link with one of those fields of studies.

– Héloïse Meziani, an archaeologist.

And from Belgium we jump to Germany, where we find Anna carrying out all sorts of duties for her archaeological company:

Currently I’m working for an archaeological company in Cologne (Archbau Köln) being the handy man – so that means I’m mainly working in the office finishing projects that mainly involve counting sherds of pottery, organising excavations but also being on site. Besides all of this, I am also the main anthropologist of my company – so whenever we dig up some skeletons I’m responsible for their examination.  So basically, I’m always quite busy archaeology wise.”

– Anna Marschner, an osteoarchaeologist.
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Next we find Adam talking about the often unsuspecting and adventurous pathways that archaeology can take you on:
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I finished my M.A. at Sheffield in 2012 and moved to London in April 2013. I was a bit upset that I was not doing anything with my degree so I looked for work, which I found, at the Palestine Exploration Fund. Through a connection there I ended up going on a two and a half month excavation in Sudan of a medieval Nile River fort. It was an amazing site but the living was very rough but that is half the fun of it!
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Adam Fraser relaxes in Sudan after excavating in the heat, and considers relaxing in London before taking part in some Oman archaeological exploits.

While I was in Sudan one of the team members received an email from a friend back in the UK. The email was about potential work in Oman. Nobody on our team was able to accept the invitation so I did. After finishing in Sudan I was in London for a few weeks indulging in the various vices that one misses while on excavation. Before I could settle down I was on another flight to Muscat. Upon arrival I was informed of the enormous task before our small team. We had to excavate and document a very large tract of land which was being developed for a highway. Scattered through the designated landscape were many Bronze-Iron Age tombs. We ended up with a few skeletons to show for it and a good collection of beads and some other jewellery. I did not expect that things would turn out this was when I was looking for work a year ago.

– Adam Fraser, a field archaeologist and a librarian at the Palestine Exploration Fund.

From Adam to Alex, who explains what it can be like to direct an archaeology company:

“As archaeology director for Elmet Archaeological Services Ltd I have a many varied role and I can be seen with many different hats on. This 2014 Archaeology Day finds me editing a report from a site that we worked on last year, whilst trying to get to grips with the vagaries of ArcMap; the commonly used GIS program for mapping sites.

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Alex in full recruitment mode for a community archaeolgy project looking at the evidence for WWII prisoner of war camps at Hickleton Hall.

I shall also be getting ready for our yearly excavations at Hickleton Hall in Doncaster, beginning in two weeks!”

– Alex Sotheran, director at Elmet Archaeolgical Services Ltd.

 And finally we have Spencer who’s often busy staring at rocks, looking for clues to our past:

I’m an archaeological lithics specialist with a particular passion for the Mesolithic period in north-east England. Somebody has to be! This period, between the last glaciation and the onset of the Neolithic revolution, is a boiling pot of potential in our region – tantalising glimpses of transitions, human reactions to major climate events and natural disasters like tsunamis.

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Spencer Carter hard at work threading the ties of humanity via the lithic analysis of Mesolithic flints from the north of England.

On the Day of Archaeology I will be in the lithics lab in north-west London. The door is always open during the day because people drift in and out wondering what on earth I’m doing with tiny bits of stone in their thousands. I tell them the story because archaeology is about a narrative, about our shared past and lineage. Having been burgled twice, the door is double-bolted each evening (nothing was taken). I’m continuing the detailed cataloguing and photography and awaiting, chewing on fingernails, the final set of radiocarbon dates for an exciting excavated Mesolithic ‘persistent place’ on the North York Moors.

On top of that, I’m helping to organise a CSI Teesside forensics event for the Festival of Archaeology and, as editor for Council for British Archaeology Yorkshire, calling for papers for our annual FORUM YORKSHIRE journal.”

– Spencer Carter, who blogs at Microburin, is a member of the Lithoscapes team and the Teeside Archaeology Society chairman.

So there you have it!  A short selection of what some of my friends involved in the beautiful, but sometimes frustrating, world of archaeology are up to on the Day of Archaeology 2014.  

The question now is what are you going to be doing?  Let me know in the comments below! 

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.

Andreas Vesalius’s ‘De Humani Corporis Fabrica’

5 Apr

I still remember seeing the vivid woodcuts of the human body looming out of the school history textbook for the first time, as clear as the sunlight that entered that dark room.  The course title was ‘Medicine through Time’, a fascinating ramble through man’s attempts at healing the body that started at the Upper Palaeolithic and ended at the beginning of the NHS and modern medicine.

The figures that loomed out were of course from Andreas Vesalius’s (1514-1564) anatomical book, ‘De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libre Septem‘ (1543), an illustrated manual of the human body in 7 books.  Produced at a time of great learning, during the flourishing of the Renaissance, the books depicted the human body in vivid anatomical detail.  Remarkably Vesalius published the first edition of the book at the age of 30, taking great pains to present the illustrations as accurately as possible.  By using woodcuts throughout the text, with the odd use of intaglio (engraved copper plates), Vesalius cultivated great artists to help detail his anatomical and dissection findings.  He had the text printed by Joannis Oporini  in Basel, Switzerland, who was a printer of foremost talent in 16th century Europe.

But where did Vesalius, as a anatomist and dissector, fit into anatomical history?  Vesalius was born in Brussels, Belgium (then the Hapsburg Netherlands), in 1514 to a family of physicians and, under the directions of Jacques Dubois and Jean Fernel, studied anatomy and the theories of Galen at the University of Paris in 1533.  He was forced to move his anatomical studies to Leuven, Netherlands, at the outbreak of war between the Holy Roman Empire and France in 1536,  However he shortly moved to Padua, Italy, to complete his doctorate and took up the chair of surgery and anatomy after its completion.  It is during this time that he conducted dissections on cadavers as a regular part of his student lessons as a primary learning tool, and promoted the use of directly observed descriptions during the dissections.

This was a challenge to the established orthodoxy of Galen‘s (AD 126- 200) anatomical legacy.  Galen studied the Hippocratic theory of pathology, and heavily promoted the theory of the 4 bodily humors and the idea of human temperaments.  In particular Galen advanced the knowledge of human anatomy in many areas, including describing muscle tones and the functions of agonists and antagonists in the musculo-skeletal system, alongside major progressions in the understanding of circulatory, respiratory and nervous systems.  Although Galen’s medical corpus was accepted as largely fact, his anatomical dissections were carried out on Barbary apes and pigs, as Imperial Rome in the 2nd century AD prohibited human cadaver dissection.

One of the 'muscle men', displaying the superficial anatomy of the major muscles in the anterior view of the human body (source).

One of the ‘muscle men’, displaying the superficial anatomy of the major muscles in the anterior view of the human body (Source: University of Glasgow).

This led to several major inaccuracies in the work of Galen and in the understanding of the biology of the human body, and it wasn’t until Vesalius that certain views were corrected and amalgamated into Galen’s legacy.  This included a number of corrections from Galen’s original works, such as recognising that the human jawbone (mandible) is one bone and not two, that women do not lack a rib compared to males (taken from the biblical idea), and that the interventricular septum of the heart is not porous as Galen advocated, alongside a plethora of other insights.

This largely occurred because Vesalius advocated active learning during dissection of human cadavers (themselves often executed prisoners).  Importantly it should be noted that Vesalius work built upon work throughout the intervening centuries, particularly in the view of contemporary Renaissance artists and anatomists.  His was not the first body of work focusing on the intricacies of the human body during this period, but it was one of the most detailed and finely executed, leading it to become an instant classic in his own lifetime.  Although he improved Galen’s theory of circulation, it wasn’t until the English doctor William Harvey (1578-1657) accurately described the systematic circulation and properties of blood (1628).

The University of Toronto has recently acquired a previously unknown and privately held 2nd edition copy of ‘De Human Corporis Fabrica’, and it is making the book accessible for researchers to study the text itself at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library.  Remarkably the unknown edition includes annotations likely made by Vesalius himself, notes where he has corrected the printed text or made notes regarding what to include in the next printed edition of the book, which unfortunately was never printed.  This typifies the character and nature of Vesalius as a dissector and researcher, but it also helps highlight the nature of science itself, how through the investigation of previous studies can inform future work and rectify mistakes or misunderstandings.  In particular is also raises the subject and value of comparative anatomy between species, of homology, of the similarities and differences between mammals.

Perhaps gruesomely, a human skin bound edition of the book survives and currently resides at Brown University.  The practice of human skin binding is known as ‘Anthropodermic Bibliopegy’ and, as Wikipedia points out, dates back till at least the 17th century.

Highlights: Disability in History, A 7 Year Walk, & Science Writing

14 Jan

The first few weeks of 2013 have been pretty busy so far, but I have noticed several interesting articles that are worth a read.  Regular readers of this blog will know I have a personal interest in disability and it’s effects upon the individual and society, from both the prehistory and historic periods.  As such I am excited to highlight the work of English Heritage and their information on the European centered ‘History of Disability: From 1050AD to the Present Day‘ webpage.  The site has a wonderful overview of the changing attitudes and roles that disabled people faced throughout this period.  Taking in the broad categories of the Medieval period, the Tudors, and the later centuries block by block, the website helps provide information on the social aspects of physical and mental disability in the various period societies.  In conjunction with the website, I also came across this article ‘Graciosi: Medieval Christian Attitudes to Disability‘ by Cusack (1997: 414-419), published in the Disability and Rehabilitation journal, which is free to view on the Academia website.  It is an interesting read, and helps to  introduce the Medieval and later period views on disability and the social implications for individuals affected.

Meanwhile over at the BBC website there is an article on Paul Salopek and the journey he hopes to make over the next 7 years.  Starting in Ethiopia in East Africa and ending near the southern point of South America in Tierra del Fuego, Salopek hopes to walk the entire journey to retrace the journey of early humans and the evolution and expansion of Homo sapiens.  Specifically the biologist and journalist will be relaying his thoughts and encounters with people each and every day of his journey, helping to detail the explosion of modern man, whilst also taking the time to articulate his views via ‘slow journalism’, as opposed to today’s fast paced news sites and blogs.

Directly related to this is a recent entry on John hawks’ weblog, titled ‘Online Communication Bias Upon the Public Perception of Science‘, where the renowned palaeoanthropologist highlights a recent Science article by Brossard & Schuele (2013: 40-41) on the negative effects of science representation in online and digital media.  The comments by Hawks are quite eye opening, as is the original paper (unfortunately behind a pay wall).  The article highlights and relates to the way we (as a public body) consume science articles in the fast moving digital world of journalism through popular and established media, particularly the main papers.  The authors found that the main body of the article is often misunderstood, with the comments sections in particular affecting the readers comprehension of the articles themselves.

So this is a brief update into my recent readings.  The next few blog entries will concentrate on the next Skeletal Series update, which have admittedly been a long time coming.  Further to this I will also write about an exciting and informative methodological update in relation to the ‘Bioarchaeology of Care‘, as espoused by Tilley & Oxenham (2011).  Generously Tilley has emailed me a copy of her recent paper, and it provides further detailed information on how the disabled individuals found in the archaeological record are assessed for care.