The Identity of the St Bees Lady, Cumbria: An Osteobiographical Approach
Christopher J. Knüsel et al.
Medieval Archaeology: 54, (2010)
USING AN OSTEOBIOGRAPHICAL approach, this contribution considers the identity of the woman found alongside the St Bees Man, one of the best-preserved archaeological bodies ever discovered. Osteological, isotopic and radiocarbon analyses, combined with the archaeological context of the burial and documented social history, provide the basis for the identification of a late 14th-century heiress whose activities were at the heart of medieval northern English geopolitics.
In 1981, excavations in the ruinous S chancel aisle of St Bees Priory church, Cumbria, uncovered an ashlar tomb containing two individuals. One was wrapped in a lead sheet, the shape of which resembled the human form, and had been placed in a wooden coffin bound with iron bands and filled internally with grey clay. Nobody expected to find an almost complete man inside the lead wrapping, especially due to an incomplete seal that left the foot end exposed. Realising the uniqueness of the find, and to maintain its preservational integrity, the lead coffin and its contents were hastily transferred to the local hospital morgue through the efforts of local GP, Ian McAndrew. Through the offices of the Department of the Environment (English Heritage’s predecessor), Edmund Tapp, Preston Royal Infirmary, performed an autopsy. Due to local sensitivities aroused by his unusual preservation, within a short time, the ‘St Bees Man’ — replaced again in his lead wrapping but with the shroud and samples of tissue retained — was re-interred close to his original resting place.