British Archaeology, no 25, June 1997: Features

Criminal graves and rural crossroads

For centuries, criminals were denied normal burial, explains Robert Halliday

At a crossroads on the Icknield Way, near Moulton on the border of Cambridgeshire and Suffolk, there is a neatly maintained patch of flowers at a spot known as the Boy's Grave. Folklore holds that a shepherd boy believed he had lost a sheep, but afraid of being accused of its theft and hanged or transported to Australia, he hanged himself. When the sheep were counted none were missing. Having taken his own life he was buried at this crossroads. People interested in the story now tend the grave.

The boy's name is not known, and his death is not mentioned in local records. However, there may be some truth in the story because it illustrates a practice that is increasingly coming to light through archaeology and historical research - the burial of criminals (who used to include suicides) at rural crossroads.

Excavations in Cambridgeshire suggest the practice may have begun at least as long ago as Anglo- Saxon times. On the course of the now levelled Anglo-Saxon Bran Ditch at Fowlmere, about 60 skeletons were found in the 1920s buried carelessly in shallow, irregular graves at a crossing called Gallows Gate. Some skeletons, dated as Anglo-Saxon by associated finds, were decapitated, while others had distended necks, perhaps from execution at the gallows.

A further 12 skeletons were uncovered at a crossroads between Dry Drayton and Oakington in Cambridgeshire during a rescue excavation in 1977. Their identification with executed criminals was suggested by medieval records showing that Crowland Abbey maintained a gallows there.

The reasons why crossroads were used for the execution and burial of criminals have only begun to be investigated. They may derive from a belief that the roads would confuse the ghost of the deceased, preventing it returning to haunt its home. The use of communal boundaries may have emphasised the criminal's outcast nature, while signifying the boundary between life and death.

Before the Victorian period, suicides were judged guilty of `self murder', which was punishable by witholding normal burial rites. A case reported by The Gentleman's Magazine of 1784 shows how a suicide's spirit could be feared. Thomas Williams of Aberystwyth had been poisoned by a woman who shared his house, who then took poison herself and was buried on the sea shore, to prevent her joining a band of ghosts who had terrorised a nearby village. The coroner suggested burying her at a crossroads with a stake through her heart, but the seashore was considered a safer option.

Crossroad burial is documented as early as 1510, when Robert Browner, the superior of Butley Priory in Suffolk, hanged himself after mismanaging monastery finances. Many crossroad burials became the focus of legend, but the facts can be established at a number of sites. In Breckland Wilds (1925), WG Clarke, curator of Norwich Museum, reported the legend surrounding Chunk Harvey's Grave near Thetford, where a pirate captured in the town had allegedly been hanged and buried. The Norfolk Chronicle of 16 September 1786 gives the more prosaic tale that Thomas Harvey, a carpenter, hanged himself after an argument with his wife.

Andrew Percival's Notes on Old Peterborough (1905) described how a suicide burial called the Girl's Grave was marked by a stone in a cottage garden, now built over. The girl can almost certainly be identified with Elizabeth James, who poisoned herself after an unsuccessful romance. The Stamford Mercury of 31 May 1811 said she was buried on the edge of town by six female relatives dressed in white. In these instances it only took about a century for the buried persons' identities to be obscured.

Dobbs's Grave, marked by a concrete head and footstone at Kesgrave, near Ipswich, is traditionally described as a suicide burial. A story, popular by the start of this century, told how locals once excavated the grave and discovered a human skeleton, from which one of them took a tooth for a watchchain charm. Another excavation took place at Jays Grave, near Manaton in Devon. Legend held that Mary Jay, a servant girl, had become pregnant by her master's son. When her employers turned her away she hanged herself. The date when these events took place is unknown, but in 1860 James Bryant, a local landowner, had the grave opened, and a female skeleton was discovered. It was reinterred, and the grave marked with a stone surround.

Crossroad burial was abolished by Act of Parliament in 1823. Official opposition to the practice was encouraged when George IV's carriage was held up by a crowd of spectators watching the burial of a suicide called Abel Griffiths, at the crossroad where London's Victoria Station now stands. By this time suicide was regarded with greater sympathy, while population growth and the development of transport meant that rural crossroads no longer seemed so remote. For a period following abolition, however, suicides could only be buried in graveyards between 9pm and midnight, and no ceremonies were allowed.

Robert Halliday is a freelance archaeologist working in Suffolk

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Fractures, punctures, dents and gashes

Violent head injuries persisted throughout the past. Joyce Filer reports

Head injuries have been a feature of all human societies; one of the unhappier universal experiences that link the present with the past. They are also one of the few experiences that cannot be hidden from archaeology - the skull is damaged so easily - and fractures, punctures, dents and gashes are found on skulls from all periods of the human past.

These injuries tell a sad but often unsurprising tale. Before the era of motorised traffic and heavy industry, most head injuries were - one assumes - the result of fighting. Injuries to arms, legs and other bones can occur for any number of reasons, but injuries to the head are most likely deliberately inflicted. War has so often involved the hand-to-hand combat of predominantly right-handed men facing one another; and by far the majority of injuries on ancient skulls are found on the left hand side (the left parietal bone) and in the middle or on the left side of the frontal bone. Far fewer are found at the back of the head. Interestingly, in ancient skeletons fractures to the skull are more common than fractures to any other bone. In a fairly typical example from pre-conquest California, where 744 skeletons from the North Channel Islands were studied recently, 144 (19 per cent) had one or more injuries to the skull, and almost all were on the front or the left hand side.

Most ancient head injuries are found on male skulls - as one would expect, if most were caused by fighting. On occasion, however, we find female skeletons with head injuries as well. For example, at the Middle Kingdom site of Kerma in ancient Nubia (southern Egypt), c 1700BC, 34 skulls were found with head injuries and of these, 13 were women. Could they have been soldiers? There is no certain evidence but it is a possibility. They may also have been cooks or nurses, caught up accidentally in the melee of battle. Alternatively both men and women may have sustained their injuries in civilian or domestic conflict, suggesting perhaps a rather quarrelsome community.

Blows to the head don't always kill. Some ancient fractures may have left the recipient with little more than a headache, but there is also evidence for some quite remarkable recoveries. One young man, for instance, in a 2nd-4th century AD Byzantine-period cemetery in Nubia, had one deep wound, probably from an axe, extending from the frontal bone right across the left of his skull. In parts, the gash had rejoined over time. He then had a second slicing cut, well over 1ft long, on the left side of his head, but he survived that too. A third cut, slicing across the middle of the left and right parietal bones showed no sign of healing, and must be assumed to have been the coup de grace.

We have one skull from Egypt, from a late dynastic cemetery at Giza (c 600-300BC), whose owner had suffered a deep slicing cut that penetrated behind the ear. Although the injury healed well, there is little doubt the man would have suffered some loss of hearing. A medieval skull from Abingdon, near Oxford, showed evidence of medical intervention following head injury, presumably to relieve headaches. Two trepanation holes had been drilled either side of a deep axe-like gash in the mid-frontal bone.

Sometimes it is possible to deduce the type of weapon used to cause the injury. The gash of an axe is obviously different from the dent of a club; an iron weapon will usually inflict a deeper and more destructive wound than one made of bronze. Only rarely, however, do we find the offensive weapon itself. In Egypt, excavations in 1923 at Deir-el-Bahari near the Valley of the Kings brought to light the remains of about 60 men, dating from c 2025BC, in a roughly hewn catacomb. The types of wounds they had suffered, and the weapons and equipment in the tomb suggested they were soldiers, and there can be little doubt as to the weapon that killed one of them. The ebony tip of an arrow was still embedded in the man's left eye socket, having penetrated some 3in into his skull.

Occasionally, too, head injuries provide clues to styles of fighting. Six male skeletons were found with head injuries in the Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Eccles in Kent. Three had the typical injuries, consistent with frontal assault by a right-handed attacker. The other three, however, had injuries that suggested disorganised attack with blows to the head coming from all directions.

Man's persistent violence to man is a sad fact of history; injuries to human skulls are its most eloquent testimonial.

Joyce Filer is a specialist in human and animal remains in the Egyptology department at the British Museum

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Digging for facts about the recent past

Archaeology has much to tell about the last two centuries, writes Keith Matthews

For most people, `archaeology' conjures up images of ancient remains, buried treasure and other relics of the distant past. Very few imagine it has anything to contribute to understanding the 19th and 20th centuries, when so many written records exist. What is the point of digging for evidence, they ask, when we know what happened anyway?

In recent years, though, a few archaeologists have begun to treat sites from the past two centuries as seriously as those of more distant periods. What we have begun to realise is that the written records of the recent past are every bit as selective as for earlier periods, even if we have more of them. Some aspects of human life were not thought worth recording - like which types of crockery were used for storage - while others, such as toilet habits, were taboo.

Historians might have difficulty tracing the development of sewerage provision to individual houses, but this is exactly the sort of information that archaeologists can recover during excavation. (It is also the sort of information many archaeologists ignore, because many of them are simply not interested in the recent past - but that's another story.)

Archaeology contributes most to the study of this modern period in helping us understand material culture. This includes the use and value of possessions in an increasingly materialist society, especially for the poor; the way in which people assert their position in the world through the use of possessions and the layout of their homes; how the patterns of work and residence have altered; and the dating, distribution and marketing of many everyday objects. In these matters, archaeological research has the potential to enhance - and in some cases transform - our view of the modern world.

Take sanitation. Mains sewerage came to Britain as a result of the work of a Royal Commission set up in 1869. The Local Government Act of 1871 and the Public Health Act of 1875 made local authorities responsible for providing sewerage, and the cost of provision was borne by local rate-payers. This brought a new division between rich and poor, as the upper and middle classes had largely moved away to suburbs in the 19th century, leaving only the poor in the inner cities, where authorities had little public money to invest in new services.

At this point, the historical documentation tends to fail us and the historian is left to speculate on how and when workingclass homes were connected to mains sewerage. Archaeology, however, can provide answers. Soil pits beneath privies were a common feature of earlier 19th century urban houses, and it is frequently possible to establish the dates at which piped waste disposal was installed. The disused soil pit might be backfilled with domestic rubbish, some of which can be dated quite closely. Using this sort of evidence we can see how it took 30 to 40 years for some local authorities to fulfil their obligations to their poorer residents.

We already know quite a lot about 19th and early 20th century slum dwellings, often from the work of middle-class social commentators. There are census returns which show huge numbers of people living in one-up-one-down houses; and photographs show dingy, poorly built dwellings piled back-to-back in insanitary courtyards. However, large parts of the lives of the people who lived in these places are simply not recorded.

What sorts of goods, for example, were they using in their homes? In museums, collections of `social history' consist mostly of the fine and expensive objects used by the rich - porcelain dinner services, glass ornaments, long-case clocks and so on. These items were not typical of a family living in a slum in Glasgow, Liverpool or London. When we excavate slum courtyards, a very different pattern emerges.

To start with, the houses are often tiny, with ground-plans no bigger than a modern single garage. Often they are without sanitation, piped water, gas or electricity, even as recently as the mid-20th century. Often they will show evidence for smallscale cottage industries, such as bone button-making, which must have been done by women and children as census returns generally show men working outside the home - a corrective to those conservative historians who suggest that women did nothing but raise families before the early 20th century. At one 19th century site in Chester, a nail-making forge was set up inside the courtyard, but it was too small for an adult to work inside - it must have been operated by children.

We can also use the recent past to examine broader questions about how the archaeological record forms - in other words, what sorts of processes operate on objects before they get into the ground. In a current study of abandoned cottages in rural Ireland, the archaeologist Mike Morris has been looking at how cottages decay. In some cases, the cottages have been virtually untouched since their last owners died. They are generally cob-walled - in other words made from unfired clay lumps - and this remains a durable building material so long as the roof stays in place; but once the roof has gone, the walls simply crumble. In a few cases, the walls have disappeared completely in only 30 years or so.

Even more interesting is what has happened to their contents. Some were abandoned with almost all the possessions of the former owners still inside, and there are cases where these cottages have been rifled by relatives, scattering things everywhere and removing anything of value. Sometimes trunks have been thrown outside, where the light is better, as the cottages are without an electricity or water supply. As an archaeologist, one is reminded of the sorts of material associated with the final phases of occupation at Roman villas, the so-called `squatter occupation' phase - it may not actually be occupation at all, but the last actions of people clearing out a house.

Ethnoarchaeology - the study of living groups of people by archaeologists - is, by its very nature, 20th century archaeology. It is usually associated with exotic locations, but there are fruitful opportunities for research in Britain - for example on subcultures and people on the margins of society. It is here that a lot of innovation seems to occur, and through ethnoarchaeology we can explore how these innovations reach the rest of society.

Take New Age Travellers. These people belong to a subculture that has developed since the late 1960s and reached a peak in the first half of the 1990s. The enforcement of the Criminal Justice Act (1994) restricted their behaviour in Britain, although their current activities on antiroad protests have brought them again into the public eye. On these protests they have produced many innovative `settlement' forms, from the tree dwellings and walkways seen at Newbury to the tunnel complexes at Honiton.

Although the encampments of traditional traveller gypsies often appear filthy and disorganised to `gorgios' (house-dwellers), to the gypsies themselves they are well ordered. More importantly, trailers are arranged so that each one can see the rest - there is no concern for what we would consider privacy. New Age Travellers are quite different, and have retained some of our attitudes - which may reflect their house-dweller backgrounds. Even so, their way of life is more communal than is typical of English suburbia.

New Age Travellers are distinctive because of their appearance (clothing, hairstyles, piercings, and so on). At a time when archaeologists are becoming interested in how people express their ethnic identity through material culture, it is in teresting to see how this subculture shows its difference by using clothes that are generally available but by combining them in new and unusual ways.

Ethnoarchaeology is usually done to try to understand societies that are very different from our own. A lot of work has been done with hunter-gatherers and with nomadic pastoralists in the hope that it will illuminate ancient societies. By looking at New Age Travellers, however, I believe that we can learn something about how our own society operates.

The archaeology of the past two centuries is social archaeology at its most exciting. Because we have a lot of information about the general conditions of Victorian and 20th century Britain, we can begin to ask more interesting questions of our archaeological data than is usually the case. Rather than look at the broad patterns, we can examine not only individual sites, but also link them with individual people named in the plentiful documentation. We can compare the objects used in households of different status without having to make assumptions about status using the objects alone; and we can trace a new attitude to material culture - an attitude of buy now, throw away later - in the two centuries since 1800. The archaeology of the recent past is still unfashionable; but as its value becomes better understood, that is bound to change.

Keith Matthews is a Field Archaeologist with Chester Archaeology

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© Council for British Archaeology, 1997