Raising the Medieval Dead (Not a Zombie Thing)

Right.  I am awfully apologetic if you have been pining for research related posts in the last few weeks.  If you haven’t been pining for research related posts in the last few weeks then surely the only explanation is that you must be new here – so welcome!  However, for those of you that missed it – we have terribly exciting news (which is what kept us busy for the last little while).  We’ve been given the go ahead for our live event at Manchester Science Festival 2013!  You can read more about the 21st Century Coffee House (and apply to take part) here.

But now that we are back to our regular programming, I am very excited to bring you the most recent Penny University featured interview.

Coffee house, charnel house, I can see how you could get the two mixed up!

Coffee house, charnel house, I can see how you could get the two mixed up!

Jennifer Crangle is a second year PhD student at the University of Sheffield in the Department of Archaeology.  She is investigating the post-depositional disturbances that occurred during the English medieval period.

AA: So, tell me a little bit about your research:

JC: Post-depositional practises were extensive throughout the medieval period (c.1066 – 1550), but are also evident in the periods both before and after. For the medieval period such activities include the creation of ossuaries/charnel chapels, and relics, the disturbance and emptying of existing graves and tombs, insertions of complete or disarticulated individuals into existing graves and tombs, box and bag reburials of disarticulated individuals, charnel pits and intercutting graves.  It has been thought that skeletal imagery and familiarity with disturbance of the dead became commonplace only after the Black Death in 1348.  The evidence so far, however, is demonstrating that reverence of human bones and their role within medieval religion was developing as early as the 7th century and continued to do so throughout the subsequent medieval period.  My research aims to bring to light this important and little understood medieval funerary rite.

AA: Okay, so let me get this straight.  You’re researching what people did with the dead during the Medieval period… after they were already buried?  I’ve heard of ossuaries before, but I thought they were created because of a lack of space.  From what you’re saying, it sounds like this might not be the case.

JC: Research to this point in England regarding ossuary creation has only focussed on the functional motivations involved, such as a requirement to empty a graveyard of existing skeletons in order to continue burying the dead in that location.  Interpretations of these site types – plus other categories of post-burial disturbance – tend to be purely functional.  This is what you and other people would have heard about before.  However, the liturgical or spiritual motivations and justifications for disinterring the skeletal dead are either minimalized or denied altogether by excavators, medievalists and osteoarchaeologists.  The frequency with which these activities occurred is also not recognised.  It is believed that the creation of ossuaries never really happened to any great extent in England and so the practise cannot be comparable to that of the rest of Europe.  The reality, in fact, proves the opposite; I have found evidence of the existence of over 60 medieval English ossuary sites. Furthermore, these sites clearly served roles in penance, confession, pilgrimage and functioned as chantry chapels did (these were private chapels in churches, built by wealthy families, where they paid a priest to say prayers for their souls).

AA:  Wow!  You mentioned a lot of different types of ‘post-depositional’ practices at the start of this interview, which suggests this was happening a lot.  Can you tell me a bit more about the types of practices?  Box and bag burials sound especially unusual!

JC: People tend to be surprised that post-depositional practices took place at all, let alone to the extent that they did.  People are also surprised that they were intrinsically liturgical!  As I mentioned, post-burial disturbance has been taking place throughout England from before the advent of Christianity in about the 7th century, right the way through the medieval period and into the post-medieval period (c.1550 onwards).  There are so many types of disturbance I won’t be able to go through them all here.  One of the earliest types of disturbance dating to the 8th century was the re-opening of an existing grave in order to insert a new burial.  The skeleton of the existing person was removed, the new person inserted, with the bones of the previous occupant/s placed or sometimes arranged around the new body.  In some places this happened up to 10 times in a single grave.  This also provides evidence about Anglo-Saxon Christian burial in general, for example, it proves that they knew where graves were located, who was in them, and how long they had been buried. 

From about the 7th century we also have the ‘box reburials’ I talked about – of single disarticulated individuals.  Bag reburials seem to be a totally different category or phenomenon – haven’t fully researched them and figured them out yet!  The box reburials represent the ‘translations’ of people deemed saintly due to the number of miracles attributed to this deceased person, which took place at their grave.  This justified the person to be disinterred in a specific ceremony; their bones were washed and placed in a box, which was itself placed into their original stone tomb or coffin which was also disinterred and brought inside a church.  The person was then revered as a saint with their tomb and translated remains becoming a shrine and relics.

AA: It seems our forebears were much more familiar with the dead than we are today – and maybe a lot more familiar than we thought they were!  Were you surprised that there was so much post-depositional activity happening in this period?

JC: Yes, a little!  I had previously researched ossuaries so knew a lot about them before I started my current research. And most archaeologists are familiar with charnel pits (deliberately dug pits in the ground to hold displaced bones within a graveyard) and intercutting graves!  I was surprised at the number and variety of post-depositional practices but even more so at the prevalence with which they are identifiable in the archaeological record.  Post-burial involvement with the dead was definitely ‘the norm’ as opposed to a rare occurrence.

AA: You said you’ve found over 60 ossuaries in England (so far).  Where (and what) exactly are they and why do you think they were lost or forgotten?

JC: An ‘ossuary’ is the most common term used to describe a place where human bones are stored, or to describe the collection of bones themselves.  ‘Charnel chapel’ is actually the official and original term for these places, as detailed in the foundation charters I’ve located, but colloquially within a few years of their construction, they were referred to as ossuaries, carnarium, bone stores, and charnel houses, amongst other names.  They are medieval ecclesiastic buildings, located within the confines of the cemetery of ecclesiastical complexes (including abbeys, cathedrals, hospitals, monasteries and parish churches).  They were constructed in England from the early 13th century to the Reformation in the mid-16th century but the height of construction occurred in the 1300’s.  They were built intentionally for the storage or curation of deliberately disinterred and disarticulated human skeletal elements and were intrinsically connected to prayer, penance and confession; this appears to have been the ‘real’ reason for their construction.  There are two forms of charnel chapel: free-standing, two-storeyed buildings and those built below churches. Both structural types primarily consist of a semi-subterranean vault or chamber, this was always where the bones were arranged/kept.  Free-standing examples had a chapel built directly on top of these partially underground chambers and in the majority of cases those charnel chapels built below churches were located under existing chapels within the church.

As they were intrinsically connected to pre-Reformation Catholic religion and theology, when the Reformation and its aftermath took place from the early 16th century, they were destroyed, emptied or re-used for secular purposes.  This is why their location, purpose or very existence is not known about, because the reverence of bones and the role of ossuaries/charnel chapels in society and faith was ceased, according to the new prevailing religion.  Due to this deliberate eradication of the physical structures and the inherent religious ideology, their original role and usage has been forgotten or misunderstood.

AA: Wow.  It sounds like your research has already discovered some things that may change how we think about this period of history – especially in England.  I can’t wait to hear more!  Will you come back once you’ve sussed out those bag reburials and other unusual practices to tell us more about them?

JC: Absolutely, I’d love to!  The medieval period in England is an extensively researched area of archaeology, yet there is clearly a large aspect of it that has basically gone unnoticed.  I guess that’s a reflection on the success of the Reformers at the Reformation.  The obligatory religious changes they imposed were so forceful that they have influenced our current understanding of England’s pre-Reformation medieval past.  The opinions we as archaeologists and the general public have regarding medieval religious ideology have essentially been shaped by Reformers acting nearly 500 years ago.  It’s only by questioning the established ‘facts’ and what we think we know, that the reality of medieval funerary practises can be recognised and understood.  It’s daunting, but I think it’s important, both to the discipline and to the medieval dead, that the reality of their post-depositional reverential practises are researched and recognised.

AA:  It’s been great having you here at Penny University.  Thanks so much for taking the time to tell us about your research.

JC: Thanks for listening/reading!

Jennifer Crangle is a PhD Candidate at the University of Sheffield.  Her PhD project is focussed on the post-depositional disturbances that occurred during the English medieval period.  If you’re interested in learning more about Jennifer and her research, you can actually visit a medieval ossuary, as described above.  Jennifer is organising /co-ordinating an open day at Rothwell Holy Trinity Church, Northamptonshire on 10th August.  It’s free to attend and includes crypt and ossuary tours by Jennifer, osteological sessions for children and adults, plus evening lectures on the subject of medieval post-depostional practises.  Further details can be obtained by emailing Jennifer directly; updates will also be posted on this Facebook group and the University of Sheffield Department of Archaeology website.

What have the Romans ever done for us?*

It has been a rainy, grey, windy week here, but have I got something that’ll brighten your day!  Today’s featured researcher may be off in Finland (along with her dashing colleague Linzi Harvey) presenting her dead Romans to the Nordic Medical Congress, but through the magic of pre-preparedness (and the internet) I bring to you today’s interview with Lauren McIntyre!

Would Rome still have fallen if the legions had access to a cup of joe in the morning?

Would Rome still have fallen if the legions had access to a cup of joe in the morning?

Lauren McIntyre is a PhD Candidate in Osteoarchaeology at the University of Sheffield.  Her PhD project is focussed on reconstructing the population of Roman York using osteological evidence.  Lauren is also Associate Osteologist for On Site Archaeology.

AA: So, tell me a little bit about your work:

LM: For my PhD project I’ve collected osteological data from as many skeletons dating to the Roman occupation of York as I could get my hands on! I’ve ended up with information for nearly 800 individuals from about a 340 year time span.  For each individual I collected data on their age at death, sex, and living stature (height). I’ve used this information to look at the composition of the population, so I’ve been able to work out things like average life expectancy and the ratio of men to women present.  I’ve also recorded every single example of dental or skeletal pathology.  I’ve used this information to try and work out how healthy people were (what types of diseases or health problems people were likely to have), and to try and work out the types of foods people were eating.

AA: Wow, that sounds like a lot of work!  Before you started your PhD was there much known about these things for Roman York or even Roman Britain?

LM: Some work has been done on a couple of different assemblages from Roman York (such as Trentholme Drive and Driffield Terrace), but no-one had ever looked at the town as a whole.  The same is pretty much true for the rest of Roman Britain – there is plenty of work done for individual sites and cemeteries, but it’s very unusual to look at an entire settlement.  What people forget is that a lot of burials are found on tiny archaeological sites – these may be isolated burials or just very small excavations where only a tiny piece of land is being excavated.  Once you add these burials up for the whole town there can actually be quite a substantial number, which could contribute significantly to the story of the population.

AA: Can you tell us a little bit about Roman York before we get on to exactly what you’ve discovered?

LM: York is thought to have been founded in 71AD by the 9th Roman Legion.  It was originally established as a fortress as part of the Roman expansion into the north of England and Scotland.  A civilian settlement eventually grew up around the fortress and it became an important urban centre.  By the third century York was made an official Roman colony and shortly after it was made the Roman capital of the north of Britain.  It would have been quite a cosmopolitan town. There’s lots of evidence for trade with other parts of the Roman Empire – for example we know they were importing wine from the Rhone valley and olive oil from Spain, as well as other exotic foods like figs and grapes.  There’s a lot of evidence for North African communities living in the town, which may be linked to the arrival of the 6th Legion in the second century, but also with the arrival of Emperor Septimus Severus who was born in an area that’s now in modern day Libya.  So there could have been people from all different parts of the Roman Empire living in York as well as those who were born more locally.

AA: Wow, so York sounds like it was a pretty happening place back in the day!  With information on that many hundreds of people you must have found some interesting things.  What are some of the population-wide characteristics you’ve noticed – and have you found any interesting individuals that stand out from the crowd?

LM: Well, I’ve found that there are significantly more men living in the town than women.  This is probably to be expected – after all, we know the town was a military installation.  What’s interesting is that adult life expectancy in the town is approximately equal between men and women.  Most other Romano-British urban sites have elevated male life expectancy.  I’ve found that approximately equal life expectancy is more likely to be found at sites with a large military presence (the same thing was true at Gloucester, Colchester and London).  This is probably because men working in the military were more likely to die at a younger age, which makes their overall adult life expectancy much closer to the female estimates.

As for interesting individuals, there are quite a few!  One individual is a lady of north African descent, who was buried on the north west side of York.  This lady is quite young, probably only in her late teens or early twenties.  She also has lots of interesting grave goods such as a mirror and gold jewellery, suggesting she was quite wealthy.  She’s known as the Ivory Bangle Lady (because of the ivory bangle she was buried with) and she’s currently on display in the Yorkshire Museum.

AA: It seems like interpretation plays a big part in understanding your data.  With the example you gave of the life expectancies, how do you know it is the men dying at a younger age, instead of the women dying at an older age?  Is there some sort of ‘Roman census’ that you can compare your site against?

LM: For each skeleton I examined, I worked out the approximate age they were at when they died.  This is done by looking at certain parts of certain bones, for example the auricular surface of the pelvis, and attributing the person a rough age at death based on the appearance of the area you’re looking at.  Once I put all the male and female ages together I applied different mathematical techniques to work out average life expectancy at birth, average adult life expectancy and so on.  When I compared my results to studies that used similar methods, the general trend across Romano-British sites suggests that men were more likely to live a few years longer than women in the same populations.  Unfortunately there isn’t any Roman census data for Britain that I could use for comparison, although I am about to have a look at some demographic work done using census data from Roman Egypt.

AA: Okay, I have to ask: how do you know she is north African?  And do you have any pictures you could show us?

LM: A study published in Antiquity (by Leach et al., article no. 84: 131-145) in 2010 showed how analysis of stable isotopes found in the skeleton’s tooth enamel suggested that the skeleton was of a non-local origin.  This individual most probably grew up in Western Europe or somewhere in the Mediterranean.  The observed craniometric characteristics were found to be mixed, in that the individual’s skull comprised only a few characteristics commonly found in white European populations, instead having more in common with characteristics found in African-American populations.  I should stress that this type of analysis cannot give us a specific region of origin for this individual, but it is highly likely, given the context, that the observed affinity with the African-American reference population is the result of mixed ancestry.  There is already a lot of archaeological evidence (from pottery, historical documents etc) that there were individuals of North African origin living in York during the Roman period, and populations in Roman North Africa are well known epigraphically for being very mixed, comprising Mediterranean, Phoenician and Berber groups to name but a few.  When you put all the evidence together, it’s likely that even if she wasn’t born in North Africa, she probably had descendants who were.

This is only a brief summary of the findings, and I unfortunately I don’t have any pictures I can share.  If anyone’s really interested in the study I suggest they look up the full article.  Ancestry studies have come under fire a lot in the past, because craniometric techniques in particular have been used to come up with some fairly dodgy and even racist notions about various geographical groups.  The Ivory Bangle Lady study is a very good example of how identification of ancestry and geographical origins can be investigated thoroughly and successfully using a multidisciplinary approach.

AA: Wow, it really makes you think more about what Roman York would have been like and the different types of people that would have been a part of it.  It’s also really refreshing to see lots of different methods being used to reach the same conclusion.  It makes for a pretty convincing case!

It has been great learning about your research – and about Roman Britain in general – thanks so much for taking the time to share it with us.

LM: Thanks for reading!

Lauren examining skeletal remains at the Rothwell charnel chapel.

Lauren examining skeletal remains at the Rothwell charnel chapel.

Lauren McIntyre is a PhD Candidate in Osteoarchaeology at the University of Sheffield.  Her PhD project is focussed on reconstructing the population of Roman York using osteological evidence.  If you’re interested in learning more about Lauren and her research, you can visit her University profile and her Academia profile.  Lauren is also a part of the current research team offering one-day and five-day short courses in Human Osteology at the University of Sheffield.

*The answer is: A lot.  But sadly one thing they did not do for us, was discover coffee (as far as we know).


Leach, S., Eckardt, H., Chenery, C., Muldner, G., & Lewis, M. (2010). A Lady of York: migration, ethnicity and identity in Roman Antiquity, 84 (323), 131-145

One lump, or two?

Welcome back to Penny University!  In the week since our launch we have had a great response, with visitors coming to the site from every continent, except Antarctica!  [Come on Antarctica, where’s the love?]  We really appreciate everyone who has taken the time to read the posts and especially those who have helped to share them with the world.  You are all worthy additions to Team 1p!

I am delighted that I am able to bring you today’s interview, because I just know how much you’re going to enjoy it.  It’s like the exact opposite of pulling teeth!*

How do you make a tooth out of frothed milk?  Badly!  This week's latte art is at least recognisable.

Sugar in your coffee? Careful, it might just rot your teeth!

Linzi Harvey is a current PhD candidate in Archaeology at the University of Sheffield.  She is looking into the dental health of archaeological assemblages and how dental health might relate to overall health in a past population.

AA:  Hi Linzi, so, tell me a little bit about your work:

LH:  Currently I am writing up the results of my doctoral research, which has been an exploration into the relationship between dental health and overall or ‘systemic’ health in past populations.  In the last few years there has been a lot of clinical literature published and public interest in how conditions like gum disease might influence other diseases in the body, such as heart disease.  There appears to be a correlation between the two in modern populations, so my research was an attempt to see if that oral-systemic health link can be identified in past-populations.  However, having only skeletons to work with makes finding that link quite difficult!

AA:  That sounds incredibly interesting – and it’s very neat to think about modern medical science having an influence on how we might approach understanding health in the past.  But yes, how exactly do you go about studying the health of people (dental or otherwise) if you only have their skeletons?

LH:  The dental health is the easy bit – the teeth in a skeleton look pretty much the same as in a living person.  Teeth are different to bone because they do not remodel after periods of disease or trauma, leaving a permanent and very visible record of these things.  Even gum disease, which we can’t observe directly because skeletons lack soft tissue, can be assessed by looking at the condition of the underlying ‘alveolar’ bone of the jaw – the worse your gum disease, the more ragged-looking your bone will be.

The general health is a bit harder to get at, but I assessed it by looking at ‘non-specific indicators of physiological stress’, which included things like bone infections and developmental disturbances.  When viewed together, having these conditions might indicate your overall health was compromised.

AA:  Are you looking at any certain time period or group of people?

LH:  Although I’m primarily examining a Medieval assemblage, I’m not actually focusing on a particular time period.  This is because I’m investigating a relationship and a method, so any past population would essentially serve the same purpose for me.  Temporal differences in dental health can be interesting though – for example, the rates of tooth decay increased dramatically after the introduction of easily available sugar into Europe in the 17th century.

AA:  Oh, we’ll have to come back to that!  But now, on to the all important question: what have you found out?

LH:  I am still analysing my results, so I can’t reveal too much in case my statistical testing proves me wrong – but it looks like identifying a general relationship between dental and overall health in skeletons might be a bit too ambitious using the parameters I selected.  However, I did identify a relationship between periodontal (gum) disease and bone infection, which might point to an underlying susceptibility to these kinds of conditions in some people.  I hope to have a better idea of what’s going on, soon.

Ugh, icky (but scientifically useful) Medieval teeth.

Side view of the upper dentition of one of the individuals from the All Saint’s Fishergate assemblage. Note how decay in the second to last molar tooth has led to a large abscess forming at the root of the tooth.

AA:  Okay, so it sounds like you’ve got some interesting results from your research!  I won’t ask you to go into too much detail, but maybe we can check back once you’re finished with your results?  It would be interesting to learn more!

You mention differences in tooth decay over time.  Since you’re looking at early remains, are most of the teeth you look at in good condition or would a dentist today be horrified if someone turned up for an appointment with Medieval-era teeth?

LH:  I’ve seen dentists look at ancient teeth and let me tell you, they generally look horrified!  It’s primarily because ‘dental attrition’ or tooth wear was so much more extensive in the past – before modern food refining techniques, people tended  to get a lot more grit in their diet, with foods generally being a lot tougher.  This meant teeth wore down more severely than the present day.  These days, soft and processed foods mean less wear, but conversely, more decay.  You also have to bear in mind that the idea of restorative dentistry is fairly new – in the past, there was no option but extraction for a bad tooth, so missing teeth were the norm, which is less so the case now in most developed nations.

AA:  It’s intriguing to think that despite the level of dental care we now receive in some ways we are worse off (in terms of decay) because of our diet.  Still, I do think I prefer the look of a mouth filled with pearly whites to a smile with gaps and extreme tooth wear – but maybe that’s just my modern bias!  It has been great interviewing you Linzi and I look forward to hearing more about your research results in the future, but until then, can you let me know just one more thing?

If it turns out there is a link (even a small one) between some aspect of dental health as an indicator of overall health in an archaeological population, do you think this will change the way we look at disease in the past – or maybe how we approach studying disease in the past?

LH:  I think the most interesting thing I’ve discovered whilst doing my research is that teeth, when studied in detail, can reveal huge amounts of information about an individual and the population they belonged to.  I’ve found that teeth sometimes get a bit lost in reporting because there are lots of them and they are difficult to count quickly – but I hope that I can show with my work that we need to try and collect more data about them more often.

AA:  Again, it has been wonderful to have the opportunity to feature your work on Penny University, thank so much for taking the time to talk with me.

LH:  Thanks for having me!

Linzi Harvey is a PhD candidate in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Sheffield in England.  If you’re interested in learning more about Linzi and her research, you can visit her blog ‘Teething Problems’, which includes tooth based news from around the world and her experiences of undertaking a PhD.

In case you missed our other exciting announcement during the launch week, be sure to read the post about Penny University LIVE! and don’t forget that if you, or someone you know, would like your research featured on Penny University all you need to do is get in touch.