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MoLAS 2004: annual review

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Selected projects 2004: Human osteology

Capability statement: Environmental archaeology

Spitalfields Roman cemetery, Tower Hamlets (SRP98)

The sarcophagus of 'Spitalfields woman' (© MoLAS)

Clients: Spitalfields Development Group

Author: Natasha Powers

The detailed analysis of c 200 Roman burials recovered from the excavations at Spitalfields Market began this year. Clusters of juvenile burials and possible family plots had been identified archaeologically and the osteological data will be examined in this light. This work also draws in small numbers of burials from adjacent, previously excavated sites.

Despite heavy truncation, it was possible to obtain some demographic data from cremations. No indications of pathological conditions were recoverable but it was possible to derive information on pyre temperature and funerary ritual. It appears that the cremation process had been carried out efficiently and evenly with the cremated bone separated from the remainder of the pyre debris, although charred seeds and plant remains were also recovered. Deliberate movement of the body on the burning pyre, collection of the hot bone, quenching, and post-depositional fragmentation may all have contributed to breakages in the cremated bone. As no in situ burning of the underlying surfaces or cremation structures was noted, the exact location of the original pyre sites could not be determined. Unburnt animal bone may represent the remains of ritual feasting or grave inclusions, and a cremated juvenile sheep vertebra is almost certainly associated with the funeral and cremation process.

The preservation of the inhumed remains was extremely variable. There are a considerable number of juveniles in the recorded assemblage. Examples of dental disease, deficiency diseases, infection and healed fractures have all been identified. The work now under way will also include a full analysis of the high-status female burial, the so-called ‘Spitalfields woman’, currently on display in the Museum of London.

Augherskea, Ireland

Upper cervical vertebrae of adult male with evidence of sharp force trauma (© MoLAS)

Clients: Margaret Gowen and Co Ltd

Author: Natasha Powers

Specialist Services' analysis of a medieval cemetery from Co Meath in Ireland for Margaret Gowen and Co Ltd resulted in the full recording of 24 sub-adults and 152 adults. The majority of the adults could not be given an estimate of sex due to poor preservation. The average height for males was 1.72m and for females 1.54m.

A number of robust middle-aged males had evidence of injuries from weapons. One of these had been decapitated, possible in a judicial execution. Another had evidence of a multiple blade injuries to the skull, including one which was very similar to an injury found on one of the individuals in a mass grave associated with the bloody battle of Towton (Yorkshire) (1461).

Unusual pathological conditions recorded in other burials include one case of enlargement of the incisive foramen as the result of cyst, several individuals with congenital spinal anomalies and two with malformed ribs. Single examples of a button osteoma, a probable case of secondary hypertrophic osteoarthropathy and Paget's disease were also noted in the assemblage. Sixteen individuals (including three juveniles) had infectious changes, three cases possibly the result of tuberculosis and two further burials with definite indications of the disease. Finally, a number of possible multiple burials were identified by using the osteological information together with site plans and photos. The absence of any zoning of young juvenile burials and inclusion within the cemetery boundary of those who died violent deaths produces a contradictory picture of the funerary practices, which may indicate an inclusive cemetery, with no separate cillin (a site for the disposal of unconsecrated burials, particularly of children).

Paternoster Square, City of London (NGT00)

Excavating early Roman features at the Paternoster site (© MoLAS)

Clients: Mitsubishi Estate

Author: Natasha Powers

Analysis has been undertaken this year on two contemporary inhumations found within a boundary ditch at Newgate Triangle, Paternoster Square (see project report), and dated to the earliest phases of Roman occupation. Although one of the burials was ‘prone’, it appears from the alignment of the skeleton that both burials were originally lying in similar positions: flexed and resting on the right side, feet pointing towards each other. The prone torso was simply the result of the body collapsing forwards during decomposition. The first individual was in their late teens at the time of death, whilst the second burial was a young adult; both were probably male. One individual had a dog buried over its knees.

Burials adjacent to or within boundary ditches are common throughout Britain, but are generally associated with rural areas. Alhough this practice has been suggested to be expedient and probably disrespectful disposal of human remains, the careful positioning of these two young men indicates a symbolic meaning to the location to be far more likely in this case. When considering these burials it is important to remember that, given the very early date of the ditch fill, and the distance from the then centre of Londinium, comparisons with burial practices found in rural areas may be of more relevance.

Ritual burials of dogs are known from the Iron Age and Roman periods in Britain, and as possible animal sacrifices in richly furnished graves. In ritual shafts at Springfield, Kent, small dogs (suggested to be sacrificial) were found buried in baskets with neonates (newborns). Two complete dogs were found in Roman London's eastern cemetery and appeared contemporary with its use as a place of human interment. Animal burials have even been suggested to form the focal point for the development of cemeteries, but few references can be found to inclusion of dogs directly with the deceased.

St Pancras burial ground, Camden

The coffin plate of Pierre Augustin Godart de Belboeuf (© Union Railways (North) Limited)

Clients: Gifford & Partners (for Rail Link Engineering)

Author: Natasha Powers and Phil Emery (Gifford)

Post-excavation and publication work on the findings from the excavation at the burial ground of St Pancras Old Church is taking place as the result of an exciting partnership with the London archaeological team of Gifford and Partners, who have commissioned MoLAS and MoLSS to carry out significant elements of this project on behalf of Rail Link Engineering. Together with the Gifford team, Museum of London Specialist Services will be analysing the findings and MoLAS will then edit and produce a monograph and other web-based material on the results of the work.

Analysis has now started on the post-medieval skeletons from the burial ground extension (in use between 1793 and 1854), recovered from the watching brief during construction of the new London terminus for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. A wealth of pathological and demographic data was collected from the generally very well-preserved remains, in addition to evidence of autopsies and suspected anatomical dissections.

The St Pancras burials represent all social classes — from the destitute to the nobility. A number of higher-status, and formerly wealthy, people have been identified from coffin plate inscriptions. These include refugees from the French Revolution, amongst whom were Pierre Augustin Godart de Belboeuf (1730–1808), (the last) Bishop of Avranches, and Arthur Richard Dillon (1721–1806), Archbishop of Narbonne and Primate of Languedoc. Archbishop Dillon had been interred wearing a fine set of porcelain dentures — a French innovation that enjoyed only short-lived acceptance in Britain. Initial research suggests that these historic dentures are unique in the archaeological record. Further research and scientific analysis is to be undertaken with the intention of publication in an appropriate specialist journal.

Together with documentary research into the lives of the many identified individuals, osteology is providing significant insights into the health of the population and changing attitudes to death and dissection during the 18th and 19th centuries.

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