Tag Archives: Rothwell Charnel Chapel

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.

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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.

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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.