Investigating Burials

08 Jun

During the 2018 season the Poulton student field school continued to investigate the burials of a medieval farming community interred within the Chapel graveyard. We uncovered multiple skeletons buried in the classic Christian manner, with the head placed at the west end and the feet at the east end, so they could raise on the Day of Judgement to face Jesus returning from Jerusalem.

Disease and starvation were constant threats in this uncertain time, and without the benefits of modern medicine and vaccination 50% of the population perished before the age of 18. Child burials are therefore common, especially between the ages of birth and 4 years old. Last August, however, we discovered a highly unusual baby burial, not just for the site but with few if any national parallels for the period. At the southern edge of the graveyard a perinatal skeleton placed on its side, as if sleeping, but within the remains of what was once a small oak box. Although the majority of the wood had long since decomposed, the metal lock, corner brackets and nails still survived. Over the course of three days we carefully excavated a channel around the burial, wrapping it in bandages for support and lifting the skeleton and box in a block for transport to Northern Archaeological Associates in Durham. After two sessions of X-Ray and micro-excavation the baby skeleton was analysed and discovered to have been born two-six weeks premature. Radiocarbon dating further placed the burial sometime between AD 1307-1421, during the height of the graveyards use. The question is, why would someone bury a baby in such a manner? 

The answer may be found in the location of the burial and premature age. If the baby was stillborn, they could not have been christened and hence buried within the community graveyard. They would instead likely have been placed outside the graveyard in an area put aside for unbaptised infants, who would wait in Limbo for the Second Coming. It is therefore possible that the family didn’t want the child to be buried in unconsecrated ground, so placed the body in a conveniently sized household box (a valuable item to a peasant farmer) and snuck them in the graveyard under cover of darkness. The placement of the burial on the edge of the southern graveyard further supports this hypothesis, as the land drops away sharply in this area to the floodplain of the River Dee c.18 meters below. By approaching from this side, the family would have been provided with the natural cover required to conduct their nocturnal, clandestine internment. 

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