The Yorkshire Highlights of Skeletons: Our Buried Bones

There isn’t much time before we say goodbye to the wonderful ‘Skeletons: Our Buried Bones’ exhibition at Leeds City Museum.  The exhibition, in partnership with the Museum of London and Wellcome Collection, brings together the skeletons of 12 individuals from across Yorkshire and London to unearth their stories and share clues to life and death in the past.

So while there is still time to visit, here are some of the stories written on the bones of just 4 of the local individuals on display.  Visit the exhibition before 7 January 2018 to find out more about these and other skeletons of those who have gone before us.

The Iron Age pair

170 BC – 30 AD, Wattle Syke, near Wetherby, West Yorkshire

Leeds Museums and Galleries collection

The skeletons of two people were discovered buried together in the same grave during excavations at Wattle Syke, with the slightly older female (aged over 46 years old) positioned behind the younger male (aged 36-45 years old).  They were discovered within an Iron Age enclosure which may have been specifically used for burials since it contained seven burials from the later Iron Age.

The room at Leeds City Museum with the exhibition Skeletons: Our Buried Bones. Photo of one of the glass case with a skeleton inside of it.
The skeleton of the Anchoress was found in an unusual crouched position, very different to how she is laid out in the exhibition (Photograph courtesy of On-Site Archaeology).

The two skeletons show evidence of a range of stresses and traumas associated with daily life.  The female suffered from osteoarthritis, which was common in women over 40, and showed evidence of heavy dental wear and three abscesses.  An abscess could be fatal in the Iron Age if it led to an infection of the blood – there were no antibiotics available to cure it. She also had a benign, non-cancerous tumour on her skull.  The male skeleton shows evidence of large muscle attachments on his shoulders, arms and legs, indicating that he was overusing these muscles and so was probably carrying out manual labour.  His bones show that he suffered from an infection to his lower legs but this had healed long before his death.  We don’t know the cause of death of either of these two people.

The Anchoress

1432-1488, All-Saint’s, Fishergate, York

On loan from The University of Sheffield 

This skeleton of a middle-aged lady who lived in York nearly 600 years ago was uncovered in the apse of the Medieval stone church at All-Saint’s.

The lady was probably of high status, considering the prestige placed on being buried in a church at this time.  But she was found in an unusual position, tightly crouched with her knees raised up towards her chest.

Archaeological site. Hole in the ground with a skeleton exposed.
The skeleton of the Anchoress was found in an unusual crouched position, very different to how she is laid out in the exhibition (Photograph courtesy of On-Site Archaeology).

Historical records tell us that there was an anchoress called Lady Isabel German who lived in the All Saint’s churchyard from 1428 until 1448.  An anchoress is a female anchorite, or someone who decides to live their life in isolation to concentrate fully on their spiritual growth.  The apse of the church was a small room and was likely to have been where she lived out her days with the door sealed shut.

Her bones show that in life she suffered from severe osteoporosis, not surprising if she was confined to such a small space.  More surprisingly, the skeleton also shows that she suffered from venereal syphilis, a sexually transmitted infection.

Is it possible that Lady Isabel German became an anchoress to repent her sins because she contracted this disease as a young woman?  Was she forced into retreating from society or was it a path she chose for herself?  Although we can speculate, we do not know the answers and much of her life remains a mystery.

The Parliamentary Soldier

1644, All-Saint’s, Fishergate, York

On loan from The University of Sheffield

Like the anchoress, the skeleton of this man was discovered at the site of All-Saint’s church, but his story is very different.  During the excavation ten mass graves were uncovered containing over a hundred skeletons dating to the 1600s.  Within the graves the skeletons were arranged in rows, often with limbs overlapping.  This tight positioning suggests that the bodies were not wrapped in shrouds, and the lack of objects in the graves indicates that they were stripped before burial.

PHOTO 03 - Parliamentary soldier
The skeleton on display is in the top-right of this photograph, the only person to be laid on their back in this particular mass grave (Photograph courtesy of On-Site Archaeology)

The skeletons in these mass graves were most likely the remains of those killed during the siege of York in 1644 during the English Civil War.  York was a Royalist stronghold, so it is likely that these individuals were part of Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentary army.

Despite being soldiers, these skeletons show little evidence of battle injuries.  But there are more ways for a soldier to die than in battle:  conditions during a siege could be severe, and disease rampant.  It is likely that they all died of an infectious disease such as dysentery, typhoid or typhus, which would leave no marks on the skeleton but which would certainly have been prevalent in the 1600s.

By Katherine Baxter, Curator of Archaeology

Skeletons: Our Buried Bones is on at Leeds City Museum until Sunday 7 January 2018. Check out more information on the exhibition here.

Skeletons: Our Buried Bones is a collaboration between Wellcome Collection and the Museum of London, touring to Glasgow, Bristol and Leeds over 2016-2018.

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