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Over 1,000 People Discovered at Medieval Cemetery underneath the University of Cambridge

Archaeologists working on a site at the University of Cambridge have reported the discovery of a cemetery belonging to a medieval hospital. They believe it is one of the largest graveyards of its kind found in Britain, with as many as 1500 people buried there.

Skeletons uncovered at cemetery below University of Cambridge. Photograph: St John's College, University of Cambridg

The first academic report of the excavations beneath the Old Divinity School at St John’s College, Cambridge, has been published in Archaeological Journal. They detail the dig, which took place between 2010 and 2012, and the hundreds of remains they discovered, far more than the team had expected.

The cemetery, which operated from the 13th to the 15th centuries, were burials from the Hospital of St John the Evangelist, which was started around 1195 by the townspeople of Cambridge to care for the poor and sick in the community, and remained in operation at this location until 1511.

Between 1,000 and 1,500 people were buried here, most of which were buried in neatly laid-out rows, or deposited in a charnel house on the site. The team, from the Cambridge Archaeological Unit, found the cemetery to have six “cemetery generations”, defined as the time taken to fill all available space before burying other bodies in the same locations.

The cemetery was found to have had gravel paths and a water well, along with seeds from various flowering plants, suggesting that much like today’s cemeteries, it was a place for people to come and visit their deceased loved ones.

Of the various human remains excavated by the team, 400 individuals were closely analysed to discover clues as to the nature of the cemetery and the surrounding community. In the article, the authors note:

The majority of the burials can be characterized as highly uniform and standardized, where a corpse was placed in a pre-dug grave in a supine position on a west-east alignment with no noticeable attempt to individuate or commemorate the event. Burial is likely to have been a relatively regular occurrence, taking place every few months. Children under five were completely absent and individuals aged under sixteen are relatively uncommon. The complete absence of young children must either indicate that they were not present in the Hospital or, if they were, that they were buried elsewhere. Both options are possible, especially given the physical separation of the graveyard from the main Hospital by an intervening road. Males were slightly better represented than females, but not markedly so in contrast to other comparable cemeteries. In particular, there was no peak in mortality amongst young females, presumably reflecting an absence of women who died as a result of childbirth due to a rule against pregnant women in the Hospital. Several skeletal markers point to the fact that the burial population had suffered from nutritional, physiological and pathogen stresses in childhood. Although a range of pathological changes was identified on the skeletons, the prevalence rates for these are not marked. There is little evidence for serious conditions that would have required particular medical care. This could reflect that the main role of the Hospital was the spiritual and physical care of the poor and infirm rather than medical treatment of the sick and injured. A few individuals, particularly those suffering from multiple conditions or with a healing wound, would have benefited from medical treatment, but these represent an extremely small minority of the burials and there is no direct evidence for treatment. 

The vast majority of burials took place without coffins, many even without shrouds, suggesting the cemetery was primarily used to serve the poor. Grave-goods such as jewellery and personal items were only present in a handful of burials.

“Evidence for clothing and grave-goods is rarer than at most hospital cemeteries”, said Craig Cessford , who led the dig, “principally because this was a purely lay graveyard with no clerics present. Items were found in graves that might represent grave-goods, but their positions were ambiguous and it is equally possible that they represent residual material from earlier activity at the site”.

Among the items that were discovered in the burials was a crucifix pendant made from Whitby jet that came from a 15th-century male, and a copper-alloy annular brooch found on right upper torso of adult female, also from the 15th-century.

There were few unusual burials in this cemetery. In one case from the thirteenth-century an adult male and a child were buried together. While double burials are not rare, they usually involve a mother and their child, ot wo children.

The authors also note, “one noteworthy absence is the lack of any large co-terminus burial groups that might be associated with the Black Death of 1348–50. In the post-medieval period plague victims from Cambridge were buried on Midsummer Common and Coldham’s Common. Although documentary evidence is lacking for the fourteenth century it is possible that the same practice applied at this time.”

The article, ‘The St. John’s Hospital Cemetery and Environs, Cambridge: Contextualizing the Medieval Urban Dead’ can be found in Volume 172, Issue 1 of Archaeological Journal. Click here to access the article from Taylor and Francis Online.

Source: University of Cambridge

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