Death in Cambridge: Medieval hospital burial ground unearthed

In my professional life, I work for Cambridge University doing media things. This story came up this week, and I thought it had relevance to our deathly interests. Enjoy!

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Archaeological investigations have discovered one of Britain’s largest medieval hospital cemeteries, containing over 1,000 human remains, when excavating beneath the Old Divinity School at St John’s College. One of the largest medieval hospital burial grounds in Britain, containing an estimated 1,300 burials, once stood on the site of what is now part of St John’s College, according to a report published in the latest issue of the Archaeological Journal.

The report marks the first public release of evidence gathered by an archaeological dig beneath the Old Divinity School, conducted as part of the Victorian building’s refurbishment in 2010-2012. The report reveals that the complete skeletal remains of over 400 medieval burials were uncovered by a team from the Cambridge Archaeological Unit, along with “disarticulated” and fragmentary remains of what could be as many as 1,000 more individuals. Images from the dig are available on the St John’s College website HERE.

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Death in Cambridge: Dia de Muertos

We’ve featured Cambridge’s excellent Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology on Deathly Ponderings in the past because they do some excellent work and this month is no exception. While many Western countries tend to celebrate Halloween, Mexico (and parts of North America) celebrate Dia de Muertos.

The Museum displayed a wonderful Dia de Muertos altar space and we took some time to discuss the significance of its construction and the festival with a Mexican member of staff.


Dia de Muertos

Celebrations start around the 28th October and reach their peak on 2nd November. It is a time for people to remember relatives, friends and ancestors in a celebratory way, with fun, laughter, music, food and music as opposed to the more sombre funeral rituals that many of us may be familiar with. The upbeat and rich Mexican tradition reflects the deeply held belief that no-one is truly dead until there isn’t anyone left alive to remember them.

Dia de Muertos has been celebrated for at least 3000 years and it brings together Aztec and Mayan religious traditions, with a more recent addition of Catholicism which was brought to Mexico by the Spanish conquistadors.

The altar

Traditionally, families will build an altar in their homes, with everyone taking part in decorating the space to honour their deceased relatives. Often altars will have three levels to represent the sky, earth and the underworld. The altars are then decorated with items, food and flowers that represent what the deceased enjoyed in life.

The lowest level is the first to be decorated. As a symbol of the underworld, flowers, candles and wood dust shapes are arranged to make a path or trail to guide the deceased’s soul to the altar.


The middle level represents earth, or the world of the living. This is where the offerings and items that the person enjoyed in life are placed. These can include games, musical instruments, clothes, food, bread, drink and sweets. Food is often placed in baskets and traditional Mexican pots.


The highest level represents the sky and is the spiritual level. A picture of the deceased is placed here with a glass of water and a cross made of salt or ashes.



We were thrilled to see how many activities that the Museum were putting on over the Dia de Muertos festival period, from sugar skull mask making to storytelling for kids. They also had a small space for people to make tissue paper chrysanthemums, which are a traditional flower used on altars and represent death due to their flowering around the autumnal period.

We made two flowers for inclusion on the altar which was rather lovely, so we got to make our own ofrenda or offering to the person who the altar was made for: Gabriel García Márquez. The Columbian author died in April 2014 and was a national treasure for Mexico due to the fact that he spent a lot of his time there.


Finishing off the day…Mexican style

To fully celebrate the ending of the wonderful Dia de Muertos festival (we had already celebrated Halloween in our own Celtic-tradition way), we thought we would support a local independent Mexican restaurant who do amazing burritos.


We were thrilled to not only enjoy some amazing food, courtesy of Nanna Mexico, but we managed to get one of their last sugar skull cookies, as well as discovering an amazing altar on the upper floor of the restaurant space. The altar is dedicated to the original Nanna Mexico, Margarita, which was quite beautiful. Without her, Nanna Mexico wouldn’t exist and it is a truly special local secret of glorious food-based joy.


Final bonus image: Nanna Mexico’s most central location has a wall of skulls in their stairwell. It is epic.


Image credits: All images by Georgina. 
Text content greatly assisted on by MAA staff.

Death in Cambridge: the Duckworth Laboratory

As soon as I saw this video, I knew we had to feature it as a Death in Cambridge post. I had no idea that the Duckworth Laboratory even existed! It is part of the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies and contains amazing collections including skulls, skeletons, death masks, mummies and much more besides. Sadly it is not open to the public as a museum, but it is still an incredible research resource. In this video, you can watch Dr Ronika Power from the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology take you on a behind the scenes tour of this hidden deathly treasure:

Death in Cambridge: Egyptian burial care

Rather that highlight one particular artifact in this Death in Cambridge post, I wanted to show several. I think these items really show how the Egyptians engaged their dead in the burial process.

First up: the eyes



These are an absolutely fascinating addition to the Egyptian box coffins and the accompanying labels describe that the motif is used so that the deceased can see out of the coffin. This is just one of many instances where the dead are seen as an active part of the process.

Next: the Shabti



According to the signage, shabti (shawabti or ushabti) were small figures that were placed in tombs to ‘answer the call’ to perform various tasks on behalf of the deceased such as tilling or irrigating the land.

There are a wide assortment of types, such as the ones pictured, ranging from wooden to limestone version, with one even made out of faience which is a type of crushed quartz which is then glazed.

Following on from there: The burial of Khety

14029012112_d8da657ee6_kThese wonderful (if a bit blurry…working with an iPhone here) figures were found in the burial tomb of Khety in 1903.  The models are carrying out a mixture of tasks, such as running a granary and butchery in order to provide food and drink for Khety in the afterlife. Just off to the left-hand side, there are boats waiting to take Khety on a trip up the River Nile.

Finally: don’t lose your dead!

We’ve seen the stock image that represents a morgue a thousand times. A random pair of feet with a toe tag on them, making sure the deceased does not become separated from their documentation. This is by no means a new thing. The Egyptians used toe tags too, to ensure that their dead are accounted for.

14029207102_028f207c7e_kThese small wooden tags have the parentage, titles and age of the deceased written on them in demotic Greek and Egyptian. The ones pictured were for a pair of women. Tags were used to identify the deceased as cemeteries were often some distance from the family home of the deceased and so mix-ups could happen. So, definitely not a modern phenomenon by any stretch as these wooden tags date from around 30 BCE to 200 CE.

All of the items featured here are housed in the Fitzwilliam Museum as part of their extensive Ancient Egypt collection. I highly recommend a visit.



Death in Cambridge: the Arbury Lady

Rigged poker -stiff on her back
With a granite grin
This antique museum-cased lady
Lies, companioned by the gimcrack
Relics of a mouse and a shrew
That battened for a day on her ankle-bone.

-Sylvia Plath

In 1957, Sylvia Plath wrote the poem ‘All the dead dears‘, inspired by a visit to the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, where she viewed the coffin and skeleton of a Roman lady exhumed locally. Due to lack of space, the Roman tomb was taken off public display in the 1980s. In 2012, the Museum had a large-scale refurbishment and restored the remains to their original setting.

The Arbury Lady. Image credit: Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

The face of the Arbury Lady. Image credit: Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

The body is of a Roman British woman from the 4th century CE, aged around 40-50, encased in a large coffin of stone lined with lead. She was found by builders working on a housing estate in Arbury, north Cambridge, in the early 1950s and has become known as the Arbury Lady.

Not only one body was found in the coffin, however. The skeletal remains of a mouse and a shrew were entombed with the lady, and there is evidence that they were gnawing on the body, especially around the ankles. The Museum have thoughtfully displayed the rodents with the Arbury Lady, preserving this fascinating detail of post-mortem activity.

Shrew and mouse bones. Image credit: Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Shrew and mouse bones. Image credit: Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Sarah-Jane Harkness, outreach officer at the Museum told the Cambridge News about how the Arbury Lady continues to inspire fascination and connects local people with their past and history

“A schoolchild was fascinated to find out the coffin had been discovered in his own street, in his neighbour’s garden. It is bringing history to them in a way they can understand – it gives it continuity.”

The Arbury Lady is displayed very respectfully in a large side-gallery away from the entrance desk and gift shop areas of the Museum, and visiting her always seems very peaceful, even during busy days. I find her very moving, and it really does feel like connecting with a real person rather than just an exhibit.

The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has many more fascinating and deathly items to explore, and is well worth a visit!

Death in Cambridge: Ascension Parish Burial Ground

Off of a busy main road that heads into the city of Cambridge there is a leafy little lane called All Souls.

compress1If you follow this straight pathway down, you will discover one of the best kept secrets of Cambridge’s deathly history: the Ascension Parish Burial Ground.

The city of Cambridge has several burials sites, including the main Cambridge City Cemetery and the American Cemetery and Memorial (which is the UK’s only WWII American Military Cemetery), but the Ascension space is quite different to these larger sites.


Established in 1857, Ascension was intended to accommodate a growing Cambridge in the Victorian era. It saw its first burial in 1869 and has since received around 2500 individuals into its modest one and a half acre site.

Apart from the fact that there are many famous people buried in Ascension, as well as several Nobel prize winners, the burial ground has been allowed to grow wild. While it is dutifully maintained, it is looked after in a sympathetic way that ensures that visitors experience the best kind of resting places: one that has been taken over by nature and is filled with life and beauty. No manicured lawns or garish mausoleums. Instead, you walk around the small burial ground and you are surrounded by trees, grasses, wild flowers and a multitude of birds and small mammals that call Ascension home. It is quite a beautiful experience to walk among the crumbling gravestones while watching tiny finches forage for food.


Finches are an incredibly appropriate bird to find in Ascension as two of Charles Darwin’s sons are buried there, as are many famous members of Cambridge University such as Wittgenstein and well-known criminologist Radzinowicz (after whom the University’s criminology library is named). Other interesting people such as further members of the Darwin family, and the sister of Leonard Woolf are buried in Ascension. There are many many more famed folk resting here, but they are often people who are renowned in their academic fields but perhaps not known in wider circles.

compress5Yet for all its history, Ascension is still actively used with some very recent headstones being erected. My personal favourites are of this Freemason couple, symbols and status very much on show.

compress6So if you are ever in Cambridge and want to get away from the hubbub of the city and all its tourist traps, head a little way outside of the main city itself and you will find this wonderful oasis, with nature and death living quite happily together. Forget the bigger celebrity cemeteries like Highgate in London…Ascension is its slightly quieter yet more intimate cousin.


Death in Cambridge: Hugh Ashton’s Tomb

Hugh Ashton's Tomb, St John's College Cambridge

Hugh Ashton’s Tomb, St John’s College Cambridge

In the Chapel of St John’s College, Cambridge, stands a strange relic: the tomb of Hugh Ashton (?-1522). Ashton was a close associate of Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII. Margaret founded the College in 1511, two years after her death in 1509, with a bequest from her will. Ashton was a great benefactor to the College and was entombed in the original pre-Tudor Chapel. When that was knocked down to build the far larger Victorian Chapel, Ashton’s tomb was replanted in the new ante-chapel. What became of his body is unknown: was it moved with the tomb or buried underneath the Chapel foundations?

Ashton in life...

Ashton in life…

Ashton’s tomb is a wonderful example of a Cadaver Tomb: featuring a life-sized statue of Ashton as in life above, vibrantly painted, and an emaciated corpse below in plain grey stone, representing Ashton as he is in death. Cadaver tombs were only made for high-ranking nobles, and it was a sign of great respect to have one. With their richly decorated upper level, the tomb hints at the wealth and status Ashton enjoyed in life. With the decomposing corpse and undecorated sepulchre beneath, the tomb shows the futility and vanity of wealth and the inevitability of death, the great equalizer.

...And Ashton in death

…And Ashton in death

Ashton’s tomb acts as a large-as-life memento mori, reminding the visitor that they too will end up like Ashton’s corpse, regardless of nobility and influence in life. Some visitors to the Chapel today find it morbid, but in my experience school children who visit love it!

Death in Cambridge: The Egyptian bouquet


Description from the accompanying label:

These plant remains were found within the linen wrappings around Nakhtefmut’s body. Recent study has shown that the ‘bouquet’ consists of garlic cloves, pierced and threaded on to strips of palm leaf, as well as a small onion.

(Fitzwilliam Museum)

I chose to feature this bouquet because I thought that it was quite beautiful that something from roughly 890 BCE has not only survived but also shows how the concept of floral additions (or non-floral for that matter) is by no means a new phenomenon when it comes to burial rites and rituals.

The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge has lots of gorgeous artefacts, some of which I will feature in future posts on this blog. I highly recommend that you visit it as it is a wonderful place with a huge range of collections from around the world.

The main image in this article was taken using an iPhone in low lighting. The bouquet is far more beautiful in real life.