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: 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!