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The Dead in 3D: The Rothwell Charnel Chapel Project Online!

Rothwell Charnel Chapel skulls. (Photo by Medievalists.net)
Rothwell Charnel Chapel skulls. (Photo by Medievalists.net)
Rothwell Charnel Chapel skulls. (Photo by Medievalists.net)

In August 2015, I attended an open house for the Rothwell Charnel Chapel Project in Kettering. Since the mid-thirteenth century, Holy Trinity Church has been home to the charnel house where Rothwell’s inhabitants have been laid to rest for hundreds of years. In the past seven months, the Rothwell Charnel Chapel Project has evolved to become more than just a research and preservation project, but has morphed into a virtual exhibit, and fascinating online learning resource that will be available globally. The project has been spearheaded by University of Sheffield Archaeologist, Dr. Jennifer Crangle, for the past four years. Work on the chapel began back in 2012 as part of Crangle’s dissertation, and the website was finally unveiled to the public at an event in late March of this year.

The Ossuary at Rothwell: What Was It?
An ossuary was a place where the bones of the deceased were kept, and because it was an important feature of medieval religious belief, charnel chapels were attached to religious buildings, such as monasteries, Cathedrals, churches or hospitals. Charnel houses were prominently situated in religious centres close to a main entrance so they could be easily accessible to the public and pilgrims.

Here in England, charnel houses were active between the 13th-16th centuries, but many were destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries between 1536-1541, by order of Henry VIII (1491-1547). Most charnel houses ended up being repurposed for other activities after the Reformation, but Rothwell was sealed. This act may have saved it from the same fate as other medieval charnel sites. The charnel house in Rothwell, and St. Leonard’s in Hythe, miraculously survived, and remain the only two charnel houses left in their original state in England.

According to a Victorian source, the Rothwell charnel house was rediscovered by a grave digger in 1700. Another source dated to 1712, written by the local rector, John Morton, talked about the chapel, reigniting interest in it. Locals have been fascinated by it since the eighteenth century, and the earliest photos of the charnel house were taken in 1912.

Rothwell Charnel Chapel - inside the ossuary. (Photo by Medievalists.net)
Rothwell Charnel Chapel – inside the ossuary. (Photo by Medievalists.net)

Conservation Issues and Other Challenges
Over the years, attempts were made to preserve the chapel’s remains. Bones were stacked carefully to aerate them and prevent further damage from the damp conditions, but it’s still an uphill battle. The charnel house is cold and damp, with sealed windows so it’s difficult to get air circulation into the crypt.

Estimates as to the number of people in the charnel house have been difficult to ascertain, but currently hover around 2,500. University of Sheffield lecturer, Dr. Elizabeth Craig-Atkins, suggested that this was likely a low estimate, and only represents the minimum number of bones.

Another difficulty for the project has been the ability to date the remains in the charnel house. The process is extremely expensive (approximately £300/$427 USD as of this writing) to have fragments radio carbon dated, and destructive to the bones because they have to be ground up in order to get accurate data. Rothwell was able to send off only five samples to determine if they have viable material to proceed with further dating. The good news is that the initial results were positive. Unfortunately, the final results from the actual carbon dating will rake six weeks to determine, but it’s a big step forward in adding more information to this important project.

Rothwell Online: A Virtual Tour of the Charnel House
After a successful public opening, the Rothwell Charnel Chapel team have moved onto making the research, further excavation activities, and discoveries, available to the public. Dr. Jennifer Crangle, Dr. Elizabeth Craig-Atkins, and Peter Heywood presented a ‘taster’ of the project timeline, where they are today, and the next steps in the creation of the virtual ossuary. They wanted to bring the charnel chapel online to serve as a forum to tell people what they were doing, to promote the preservation of the charnel house, and to use it as a teaching resource about medieval burial practices. The website will help answer questions such as: Who were the people in the chapel? What can the skeletal remains tell us about their lives? How did it survive the Reformation? How many bones lie down there?

Dr. Jennifer Crangle and Peter Heywood
Dr. Jennifer Crangle and Peter Heywood

The Virtual Tour of the Crypt
Heywood, who heads the IT on the project, presented a virtual reality demonstration of what visitors to the site might see over the coming months. The crypt had never been documented in such detail before; it underwent 17 scans, and collected over 600 million points of data to create a mesh from the point cloud.

Technological Challenges
As with any new technology, naturally, there were challenges. Due to the physical constraints of the space, it was difficult to accurately capture certain points in the room. The crypt is not large, at only 9m x 4m x 2.5m, with an extremely uneven tamped clay floor, coupled with the fact that care had to be taken when moving about so as not to disturb, or damage, the remains. This made scanning and lighting equipment tricky to navigate in certain areas.

There were also difficulties with variance in the point cloud density. Lighting presented obstacles too, as sources were either too close to the equipment, or too bright, picking up shadows and gaps in scans. Heywood, along with website creator, Joe Priestley, is working out the bugs to improve the detail of the model. They are also trying to reduce the file size of the 3D model so it can be viewed easily on the web, and studying the lighting environment to get clearer results in the future.

The Rothwell Charnel Chapel Project: Next Steps and Aspirations
The Rothwell Charnel Chapel Project is continually evolving and growing, and the tremendous efforts being made here are a major feat in digital forensic archeology. The team has seen a flurry of activity with the launch of the website, and recently attended the Computer Applications & Quantitative Methods in Archaeology conference in Oslo to present their findings. The project also opened its Facebook page to the public so that people can follow along on social media. It has been an exhilarating and rewarding experience for those involved over the past four years and shows no signs of slowing down.

What do they hope will come of this latest step forward in the development of Rothwell? They’d like to see this project help further their research with a diverse range of interested groups, and strengthen the project’s international reputation in hopes of attracting potential funding opportunities. Ultimately, they hope the online resource will tell the world about the crypt at Rothwell, and shed light on its importance to medieval funerary archeology, religious life, and personal beliefs about death and burial.

The Rothwell Charnel Chapel Project Team
Dr. Jennifer Grangle
Dr. Elizabeth Craig-Atkins
Greer Dewdney
Peter Heywood
Dr. Steve Maddock
Dr. Robin Scott
Joe Priestley
Tom Hodgson
Professor Dawn Hadley

Please visit: The Rothwell Charnel Chapel Project



~Sandra Alvarez



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