ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 43, April 1999


Signs of body-snatchers in Quaker burial ground

The empty coffin of a woman whose remains may have been stolen by 18th century `body-snatchers' has been found in a Quaker burial ground in south-west London. The infamous body-snatchers dug up freshly-buried bodies and sold them to hospitals for anatomical research.

A name-plate on the lead coffin indicated that it belonged to Anna Barnard, a member of a distinguished Quaker family whose members included John Barnard, MP for London and Lord Mayor of the city in 1737. The coffin lay within the grand Barnard burial vault, and it displayed old breaks in the lead showing it had been forcibly opened at some time in the past.

When the coffin was opened by archaeologists from Archaeology South-East, they found it contained nothing but a blonde wig. This suggests she may have been removed by body-snatchers, according to excavator Lucy Kirk, writing in the latest issue of London Archaeologist.

The burial ground in Kingston-upon-Thames, which was in use between 1664 and 1814, is the first Quaker cemetery to be fully excavated. It has produced evidence for a prosperous middle-class community which nonetheless contained individuals suffering from severe mental and physical illness. The land has now been given over to housing development.

In one lead coffin, four whole walnuts were found buried with the body. They were placed in the mouth, between the knees, and between the feet – the fourth had fallen through the coffin's decayed base and its original position is unclear. In folk medicine, according to Ms Kirk, walnuts are associated with madness, and were probably symbolically interred in this coffin because the occupant was mentally ill.

Another coffin contained an adult male whose skeleton, according to the report, `demonstrates one of the most advanced levels of skeletal change caused by venereal syphilis yet recovered from the archaeological record'. The majority of the burials, however, suggest a generally healthy population, showing the effects of neither dietary deficiency nor excess.

The community's non-conformist beliefs were immediately suggested by the alignment of burials. Of 497 graves, only 10 per cent were aligned east–west in the traditional custom. Interestingly, the community disobeyed some of its own customs as well. Quakers considered the idea of disturbing graves abhorrent, and the cemetery's earlier burials show that efforts were made to avoid doing so. Many of the later burials, however, cut through earlier remains.

The Barnards were one of the guilty families. Documents record that permission was granted to build their vault `apprehending that it will not incommode any graves already made'. Excavation has proved this assumption was false. The presence of earlier graves must have become clear to the tomb-builders, but they proceeded with their work regardless.

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Monuments re-used for Saxon defence

Prehistoric monuments in Wessex may have been re-used in the late Anglo-Saxon period as part of a local system of civil defence against the Vikings, according to new field research carried out around Avebury.

Archaeologists have recently drawn attention to the Anglo-Saxon re-use of prehistoric monuments for sacred or ritual purposes (see BA, November 1997), but the idea that monuments were reoccupied for defensive reasons is more novel.

Evidence for civil-defence arrangements has long been elusive in the areas between the walled towns, which were established by King Alfred in the late 9th century. Now, however, the discovery of a Bronze Age barrow near Avebury that seems to have been used as a late Anglo-Saxon beacon platform has led to a reassessment of Anglo-Saxon remains on Silbury Hill and at Avebury itself.

The barrow stands inside a late Anglo-Saxon enclosure in the shrunken village of Yatesbury, two-and-a-half miles west of Avebury. Its top was `flattened and roasted', according to the excavator, Andrew Reynolds of London's Institute of Archaeology, and its recut ditch was full of charcoal which contained a sherd of wheel-stamped late Anglo-Saxon pottery.

The barrow is in sight of the Neolithic Silbury Hill, where palisading and revetment were found near the summit with iron nails and a late Anglo-Saxon coin earlier this century. The top of the Hill is visible from the fortified Anglo-Saxon burh enclosure at Avebury which lies close to the Neolithic stone circle. Avebury and Yatesbury are linked by an Anglo-Saxon herepath, or military road.

According to Dr Reynolds, the Anglo-Saxon evidence on Silbury Hill has never yet been adequately explained. `It is most likely that the three sites formed part of a strategic early-warning system for the Marlborough Downs,' he said. Hundreds of such localised defensive systems must have existed, partly to `fill in' the 20-mile gaps between towns and allow a warning signal to be passed by a series of beacons from one town to another.

In the 10th and 11th centuries, Dr Reynolds said, to qualify for the status of a thane (landed gentleman), you needed a bell-tower, five hides of land, and a burhgate – a fortified or gated enclosure – to enable you to contribute to civil defence. One example of a burhgate may be the enclosure surrounding the beacon platform at Yatesbury.

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Medicines identified from the Mary Rose

An insight into the treatment of wounds and other ailments at sea in the 16th century has been produced by the chemical identification of ointments and dressings found in the medicine chest of the Mary Rose.

Residues of the contents of ceramic and wooden jars survived inside the chest when the Tudor battleship sank in the Solent in 1545, and became entombed in the seabed mud. Contemporary textbooks describe medicines available at the time, but the Mary Rose remains have produced the first ever glimpse of what was actually offered – rather than available in theory – to sailors on one major warship at the start of the modern period.

The range of medicines on board the ship was limited, offering treatment mainly for wounds, burns, and other skin complaints. However, most were probably fairly effective, as they contained active ingredients used in medicine until the start of the 20th century – and in one case, to the present day.

One preparation for burns consisted of zinc mixed in animal fat – similar to modern Calamine lotion whose active ingredient is zinc oxide. Another consisted of copper salt in animal fat, an antibiotic ointment used until recently to treat necrotic skin ulcers.

The chest contained large quantities of pine resin, an antibiotic dressing for wounds which prevents fluid loss and de-hydration. Scraps of bandages were found in the chest, and perhaps most surprisingly, a jar of peppercorns, which textbooks recommended both as a dressing for rheumatic aches and, for internal use, to treat gastric spasms.

According to Brendan Derham, a doctoral student at Bradford University who conducted the research, the chest contained almost no medicines for internal consumption because barber-surgeons (including ship's surgeons) were prevented at the time from prescribing them. This remained the prerogative of physicians, an elite group who rarely went to sea.

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In brief

Suffolk trough

A large oak trough of possibly Roman or Iron Age date has been found at a quarry near Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. The 4ft (1.3m), 10 gallon (45 litre) trough is thought to have been used initially as a large food-dish, before acquiring a secondary role as a sledge. It was abandoned on the edge of a former stream or mere, possibly at the end of a long downhill run.

Excavation of two 2nd century AD barrack blocks at Wallsend Roman fort has suggested that men and horses were housed in the same building. Each block contained nine pairs of rooms. In each back room was a hearth, and in each front room a long oval pit interpreted as a soakaway for horse urine. A similar arrangement has been found on the Continent but archaeologists have hitherto resisted the idea that horses were stabled inside forts in Britain. Horse urine would have been collected for use in tanning leather and dyeing cloth, according to the excavator, Bill Griffiths of Tyne and Wear Museums.

Early Scotland

Charcoal-filled pits and microliths (tiny flint blades), found at Daer Reservoir in the Lowther Hills of Lanarkshire, have produced radiocarbon dates of about 10,080 years ago. They have been claimed to mark the earliest evidence yet found for human occupation of the Scottish mainland. The discoveries were made by volunteer archaeologists based at the Biggar Museum Trust. Some of the pits are thought to represent stake-holes for the tents of a transitory campsite, while analysis of the charcoal suggests a landscape rich in birch and wild cherry scrub, very different from the treeless landscape of the area today.

Tewkesbury: a long-running application to build houses at the centre of the battlefield was finally rejected by the Government last month (see Comment).

The new chief archaeologist at English Heritage – potentially the most influential figure in English archaeology – will be David Miles, now Director of the Oxford Archaeological Unit. Mr Miles succeeds Geoff Wainwright, whose main achievement was the introduction of developer-funding within archaeology in 1990.

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© Council for British Archaeology, 1999