ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 48, October 1999


Teaching surgery and breaking the law

Dissection was illegal until 1832, but it was done anyway. Andrew Chamberlain explains

It was not until 1832 that doctors were permitted to dissect, for the sake of medical research, donated and unclaimed bodies - such as those of paupers who died in hospitals and workhouses. Before the Anatomy Act of that year, practical research and instruction in human anatomy in Britain had depended on judicial executions as the sole legitimate source of corpses.

Such was the law. The reality, of course, was different. The legal provision ofcadaverswas always insufficient to meet the demands of medical science, and with an increasing interest in human anatomy and physiology during the 17th and 18th centuries, an illicit trade in corpses developed.

The activities of the so-called `bodysnatchers', who dug up freshly-buried bodies, and sold them to anatomists for the advancement of science, have been documented in great detail by historians. But one key source of evidence for the work of the early anatomists has been largely overlooked - that of the dissected bodies themselves. This archaeological evidence suggests that pre-1832 dissections were far more common than has been thought.

Dissection and autopsy techniques leave a distinctive signature on human remains, providing an enduring record of past anatomical procedures. This evidence is important, because widespread public opposition to the practice of anatomy - amounting at times to hysteria directed at the anatomists themselves and riots outside medical schools - led to a reluctance among the early anatomists to record their activities in documentary form.

Recent archaeological excavations on urban development sites have produced extensive evidence for 18th and 19th century burials of dissected body parts. Some of the most striking evidence comes from the site of the former Newcastle Infirmary, a `voluntary' hospital founded by philanthropists in 1751 for `The Sick and Lame Poor of the Counties of Northumberland and Durham' (see BA, April 1997). It was an institution where individuals unable to afford the services of a private doctor could be treated, and was one of 29 such voluntary hospitals founded in Britain during the 18th century.

In 1997, the site of the Newcastle Infirmary was redeveloped by Tyne and Wear Development Corporation for a Millennium Project - The International Centre for Life. Archaeological evaluations in advance of site clearance demonstrated the survival of well-preserved human remains in the former infirmary burial ground, which had been used from 1753 to 1845 to inter the unclaimed bodies of patients who had died at the institution. Subsequent excavations directed by John Nolan of the (now disbanded) Newcastle City Archaeological Unit revealed 210 articulated skeletons as well as charnel deposits containing disarticulated remains from a minimum of 400 further individuals.

The skeletal remains from the burial ground were studied by osteologists working for ARCUS at the University of Sheffield, and although evidence for medical intervention was expected we were still surprised to encounter more than 200 amputated limbs, predominantly leg bones both above and below the knee, which had been discarded as surgical waste.

In about one third of cases, a possible reason for amputation was evident from the pathology of the discarded bone. Several bones showed signs of chronic infection, for example syphilis and TB. Others revealed evidence of severe trauma, such as crushing or compound fracture, and in one case the amputated bone was affected by a cancer. This would have appeared as a hard lump on the lower part of the leg, though in fact the tumour now appears to have been benign.

We discovered that the anatomical positions of the amputation sites had been carefully selected and standardised so that the remaining healthy part of the limb could function with the attachment of a prosthesis. A diseased foot, for example, would not be amputated at the ankle but at a standard point below the knee, allowing the patient to `kneel' in the cup attachment at the top of a typical wooden leg. We infer that most of the patients survived these operations and were eventually discharged from the infirmary.

But there were also many cases of postmortem medical intervention, including 60 craniotomies, a routine autopsy procedure that is still performed at most present-day post-mortems, in which the scalp is retracted and the skull cap sawn across transversely in order to gain access to the brain. Other bodies showed evidence of cuts made to the collar bones and ribs, again the standard post-mortem procedure for gaining access to the thoracic organs.

In addition there were the bones from several prosections, dissections performed for teaching purposes which involved the division of selected body segments for demonstration of particular organs and structures. Some bones had been divided longitudinally in order to reveal their internal structure or to study pathological lesions. We also found skulls sawn vertically through the eye sockets to expose the structure surrounding the eye.

One individual - nicknamed `The Magician's Assistant' by the excavators - had literally been sawn in half. The skeleton was intact only down to the middle of the fourth lumbar vertebra in the small of the back. This procedure may have been done to demonstrate the structure of the pelvis. The corpse had been buried in a coffin with a stone slab substituting for the weight of the missing lower half of the body, presumably to disguise the fact that dissection had taken place.

Other skeletons showed multiple unhealed amputations involving several different limbs, which could not have been performed for clinical reasons and must indicate that trainee surgeons were practising their amputation techniques on cadavers. One individual, for example, had standard unhealed amputations to one arm and both legs (one above the knee, the other below). Others displayed `test' amputations in which the bone was sawn first from one side, then the other. In a clinical procedure, the bone would always be sawn through from one side only, for the sake of speed.

In general the evidence suggests that the amputations were performed with great expertise. Striations in the cut bone show that saws were kept very sharp. Cuts tended to be clean, with a slight notch where the bone finally splintered off, indicating that saws were wielded with considerable pressure to achieve a fast cut. There is no physical evidence for pain relief, but we know from documentary references that tourniquets were applied at pressure points on the limbs for 20 minutes before the operation to deaden the nerves, and it is likely that the amputation was complete while the patient was still in first shock.

In total, about one seventh of the individuals in the burial ground at the Newcastle Infirmary had been subject to post-mortem examination and/or anatomical dissection, and the skeletons exhibiting this evidence were concentrated in the earlier phases of the burial ground deposits, so were likely to have been buried prior to the Anatomy Act. The burial registers for the infirmary make no mention of post-mortems or anatomical dissection, but in one instance the individual's recorded date of death and date of burial were separated by seven days, suggesting that an extended opportunity was available for medical studies of the recently deceased.

Other sites in Britain have produced similar evidence, though not on the scale encountered at Newcastle. At Christ Church Spitalfields, in East London, seven autopsied burials were found in graves dating to between 1729 and 1859, and last year a surreptitious buried deposit of 18th century dissected human and animal remains was found at Benjamin Franklin's House at Craven Street in London, where the anatomist William Hewson had stayed as a lodger.

Directly comparable American material has also been excavated from the site of the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta, where prior to 1887 the practice of anatomical dissection was illegal and dissected cadavers used for medical teaching were therefore concealed in unmarked graves.

The skeletal remains from the Newcastle Infirmary burial ground and similar contemporary sites have therefore provided a fascinating insight into surgery, autopsy and anatomical dissection in an era when rapid advances were being made in clinical medicine, pathology and the anatomical sciences - and where documentary records are few and far between.

Dr Andrew Chamberlain is a Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Sheffield

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Revising the Mesolithic at Star Carr

New excavations have shed new light on one of Britain's most famous prehistoric sites, writes Paul Mellars

When the late Sir Grahame Clark commenced his excavations at Star Carr, close to Scarborough in East Yorkshire, in 1949, he was hoping to discover a British counterpart for the famous early Mesolithic lake-side settlements such as Mullerup and Svaerdborg in Denmark and Duvensee in Germany, with their rich finds of bone, antler and other organic artefacts.

Prior to the Star Carr excavations, knowledge of the British Mesolithic had been based almost entirely on rather pathetic flint scatters, with only around a dozen isolated finds of barbed antler and bone spearheads, mostly dredged up from rivers or (in one case) the bed of the North Sea - a poor showing compared to the impressive discoveries from the continental sites.

Clark's discoveries at Star Carr were spectacular. The site, a lake in prehistory, became an area of lowland peat bog until it was drained for agriculture in the 18th century. By digging an area of around 300 square metres at the edge of the ancient lake he eventually discovered over 190 well-preserved barbed antler points (over ten times the previous total from the whole of Britain) together with a number of elk antler `mattock-heads' (possibly used as digging sticks) and bone scraping tools. He also found 21 red deer antler `head-dresses' (either hunting disguises for stalking the deer, or possibly ceremonial head-gear used in rituals), a large part of a birch-wood paddle, at least a dozen perforated stone beads, and a rich collection of flint tools ranging from the small `microlithic' tips and barbs of arrows to larger axe- or adze-like woodworking tools.

The occupation area at Star Carr had been located on the immediate shore of the lake, so that the antler, bone and even some wooden artefacts were well preserved in the waterlogged peat deposits which evidently acted as a kind of rubbish-disposal zone immediately in front of the site.

The discoveries of animal bones were equally spectacular, and appeared to show that the bulk of the meat supply had come from hunting red deer (represented by parts of at least 80 carcases) with smaller amounts from elk, wild oxen (or aurochs), roe deer and wild boar. Surprisingly, there were only a few bones of water birds, and no remains whatever of fish - a surprising discovery for a lake-side site.

Detailed studies of the antlers of the red deer showed that most of these had come from stags which were killed between November and April, when the antlers were still firmly attached to the skulls and before the annual shedding of the antlers in the early spring.

Finally, Clark discovered what he believed had been a deliberately constructed `living platform' on the site, composed of a mass of birch branches and brushwood thrown down at the edge of the reed-swamp zone to provide a drier and more solid basis for the human occupation. From the quantities of animal bones represented on the site and the overall size of the occupied zone he estimated that the site could have been occupied by a group of around 20-25 people (perhaps four to five families) for around three months of each year, over a total period of perhaps 25 years.

The whole of this lake-side encampment was dated by the new technique of radiocarbon dating (which had recently been invented at the University of Chicago) to around 7500BC - at the very beginning of the early postglacial period, at a time when birch forests were just starting to colonize northern Britain in the wake of the retreating ice sheets. The low sea levels at this time (caused by the large amounts of water still locked up in the melting ice sheets) would have left large parts of the North Sea and English Channel as dry land, and it was natural that the early Mesolithic groups should have colonized eastern Britain from the adjacent parts of north Germany and Scandinavia, following the northwards-moving herds of game. For almost 40 years Star Carr remained the classic text-book example of a Mesolithic settlement, debated in hundreds of undergraduate essays and examination questions. But eventually the classic intepretation of the site began to crumble. In 1978, the Irish prehistorian Seamus Caulfield suggested that most of the red deer antlers represented at Star Carr could well have been deliberately imported into the site as a source of raw material for manufacturing the barbed spear heads, and need not derive from animals hunted from the site itself. If this was taken into account, the amount of meat represented by the actual bones of red deer was reduced to less than a half.

A further direct implication of this was that one could no longer rely on the evidence of the deer antlers to indicate the season of occupation of the site. The archaeologists Tony Legge and Peter Rowley-Conwy pointed out in 1988 that if one looked at other sources of seasonal information (such as the age of the deer, as indicated by the stage of growth and wear of the teeth) the main emphasis of the occupation seemed to shift onto the summer rather than the winter months.

Other authors suggested that Star Carr might not even represent a `settlement' in the true sense of the word, but simply a highly specialized location used for brief periods either for the lake-side hunting of deer, or the specialized industrial working of antler and deer skins.

So when the prospect of new excavations at Star Carr emerged in the mid-1980s, there was no shortage of questions in mind. The new work was carried out as part of a much wider project aimed at the investigation of the early Mesolithic settlement in the Vale of Pickering lake basin as a whole, initiated by Tim Schadla-Hall and supported by the Vale of Pickering Research Trust and the Cambridge University-based McDonald Insitute for Archaeological Research. Two seasons of excavation took place, in 1985 and 1989, and the post-excavation analysis was completed last year.

The main results came from a long trench excavated 25 metres east of Clark's original excavations. In many ways the most significant results came from the detailed pollen and sedimentary analyses carried out by Petra Dark (now of the University of Reading) at several points along this trench. A critical discovery was that throughout the period of the human occupation of the site the associated lake-edge deposits contained a dense concentration of charcoal particles, many of which could be identified using high-power scanning-electron-microscope techniques as deriving from the stems and leaves of Phragmites reeds.

The high density of this charcoal can only be convincingly explained by the repeated burning of the reedswamp over a long period of time, and the coincidence with the distribution of early Mesolithic artefacts through the deposits can hardly be coincidental. The evidence seems inescapable that for one reason or another the human occupants were deliberately setting fire to the reedswamp immediately in front of the site (probably in the late spring or early summer months when the reeds were fully dried out and highly inflammable) either to improve access to the lake, or possibly to attract animals to graze on the new year's growth of young reeds which started to shoot up in the early summer.

In either case this provides probably the clearest evidence so far recorded for the deliberate burning, and perhaps even `management', of the local vegetation by Mesolithic communities in Britain - an issue which has remained a lively point of debate in studies of human/environment relationships in the British Mesolithic for the past 20 years.

The evidence of the charcoal distribution through the deposits also led to a radical new interpretation of the entire chronology of the Star Carr occupation. By carefully picking out fragments of charcoal from closely-spaced levels throughout the peat deposits it was possible to obtain a stratified seqence of 12 radiocarbon dates, dated by the small-sample radiocarbon-accelerator unit at Oxford.

When the dates were plotted against their depth in the deposit, the results showed a striking pattern, or `wiggle', in the age/depth correlation curve, which could be matched almost exactly with closely similar wiggles recorded in radiocarbon-dated tree-ring sequences from southern German sites. As the tree-ring sequences can be precisely dated, this immediately provided a way of converting from `raw' radiocarbon dates to true, `calendrical' dates, and led to the surprising revelation that the whole of the Star Carr occupation is around 1,000 years older than previously thought, dating originally from around 8700BC rather than 7500BC as Clark had believed.

Another major discovery was that the total period of occupation at Star Carr must have spanned at least 250-300 years of repeated visits to the site, compared to the 25 years or so which Clark had originally envisaged. Quite clearly, Star Carr must have been a major and repeated meeting place for early Mesolithic groups over many successsive generations.

But in many ways the most dramatic discovery of the recent excavations was the evidence for an extraordinary level of carpentry skills in northern Britain almost 11,000 years ago. Right at the base of the lake-edge occupation levels we encountered a series of large timbers, all laid at the same level in the peat deposits in a more or less parallel fashion, and evidently representing a short length of wooden platform or trackway laid down across the waterlogged zone between the occupation area itself and the open waters of the lake.

This was totally unlike the disorganized birch `brushwood platform' encountered in Clark's excavations only 30 metres or so to the west, and probably ranks as the earliest evidence of a deliberately-constructed (if very short) wooden trackway so far recorded in Europe.

Detailed studies of the individual timbers by Maisie Taylor of the Flag Fen Project revealed that many of these had been carefully split from large trunks of either poplar or aspen, in some cases up to 3 metres in length and with a thickness of only 3 cm or so. The highly controlled splitting of these long, plank-like timbers must have been done with a combination of flint axes and either antler or wooden wedges, and suggests a hitherto unsuspected level of carpentry skills at this early period of European prehistory.

One technical innovation in the recent work was to lift an intact, one-cubic-metre block of the lake-edge occupation levels for fine-scale excavation in the laboratory - something which has rarely been attempted on this scale in earlier excavations. A specially constructed steel sampling chamber was driven horizontally into the peat deposits exposed in the face of the long trench (using builders' `acrow-jacks' to apply pressure) and then lifted by block and tackle. Back in Cambridge the block sample was carefully excavated, using small spatulae and illuminated magnifying lenses, under fully controlled laboratory conditions.

The experiment failed to confirm our hopes that there might be small fish bones or other micro-faunal material lurking in the sediments, but it did provide a wealth of information on the detailed structure and composition of the lake-edge occupation deposits. There is no doubt that high-resolution `laboratory excavation' techniques of this kind have great potential for the future of archaeological fieldwork - but they are rather expensive in terms of the time and labour involved.

The new investigations at Star Carr provide a striking illustration of how a combination of new theoretical approaches and new analytical techniques can shed entirely new light on what had often been perceived as a totally excavated and fully documented site. No doubt it provides a sobre warning as to how the interpretation of other so-called `classic' sites may change as new generations of archaeological scientists come to work on the sites.

In the case of Star Carr we have the advantage of being able to place the finds into a much wider archaeological context provided by the continuing research of the Vale of Pickering Trust into the early postglacial settlement of the Vale of Pickering as a whole. It is now clear, for example, that Star Carr was only one of a series of at least a dozen major activity areas distributed around the shores and islands of the ancient lake - though interestingly no other site has yet produced more than a small fraction of the wealth of bone and antler finds recovered from Star Carr itself.

Maybe the economic and other attractions of the lake provided a rallying point for early Mesolithic hunters from a large part of north-eastern England at specific seasons of the year. By analogy with the behaviour of recent hunter-gatherer groups in similar environments, the lake could well have formed a major social centre for both ritual and ceremonial, as well as economic activities.

It is already clear that at certain seasons of the year the groups from the Vale of Pickering dispersed into the adjacent uplands of the North York Moors, and probably the Central Pennines, probably to hunt the migrating herds of red deer, as Grahame Clark suggested in his own reassessemnt of the site almost 30 years ago (Star Carr: a case study in Bioarchaeology, Addison Wesley modular publications, 1972).

But above all it is the evidence for the dynamic attempt at controlling and manipulating the local vegetation revealed by the evidence for the repeated burning of the reedswamp adjacent to Star Carr which stands out as the most significant contribution of the recent work. To describe this as an early example `firestick farming' may be pushing the evidence too far, but it does suggest a much more enterprising and positive approach to the management of the environment than most of the classic images of the European Mesolithic have allowed.

Combined with the evidence for the large-scale and surprisingly sophisticated carpentry on the site, the Yorkshire Post's claim that there were `nowt so clever as Stone Age Yorkshire folk' may have at least some element of truth.

Paul Mellars is Professor of Prehistory & Human Evolution at Cambridge University, and President of Corpus Christi College. His book, jointly written with Petra Dark, Star Carr in Context, was published last year and is available from Oxbow Books.

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Hunting out the remains of Robin Hood

Several sites associated with the legendary outlaw survive. Eric Houlder reports

Robin Hood is arguably the world's most famous outlaw. From being a relatively obscure local robber, thought to have been active around the 13th or 14th centuries, he has become known throughout the world. Books and films have proliferated his image, but unfortunately they have also distorted it.

The blame for this distortion lies with the entertainment industry - whether medieval minstrels or Hollywood scriptwriters. Thus we find characters being added, such as Marion in the 16th century, and Friar Tuck, a real outlaw first mentioned in 1417 in Sussex and Surrey. Original characters were quietly forgotten, like Gilbert of the White Hand, and the Pinder of Wakefield. The emphasis of the Robin Hood legend has changed repeatedly throughout its life.

Historians who have attempted to penetrate this haze of misinformation and reach the real Robin Hood - or more properly `Robyn Hode' - include RB Dobson and J Taylor (Rymes of Robyn Hood, An Introduction to the English Outlaw, 1976) and John Holt, emeritus Professor of Medieval History at Cambridge University (Robin Hood, 1989). The consensus is that Robin Hood did exist, although his precise date and identity remain uncertain. The earliest mention of an outlaw of this name was at the York Assizes on 25 July 1225; although this Robin Hood may or may not have been the one who went on to inspire the legend.

Analysis of the very earliest printed versions of the Robin Hood ballads, however, such as A Gest of Robyn Hode and A Lyttel Geste of Robyn Hode, provide a number of clues to Robin Hood's area of operations and the locations of several of his exploits. These ballads were first printed around 1500, but are thought to have their origins some two centuries earlier. Some of the sites mentioned in the ballads can still be visited. Despite his famous association with the forests of Nottinghamshire, in the earliest ballads he is placed quite firmly in Barnsdale:

Robyn stode in Bernesdale,
And Lenyd [leaned] hym to a tre,
And bi hym stode Litell Johnn,
A gode yeman [yeoman] was he.

(A Gest, verse 3)

In Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, Robin states:

`My dwelling is in the wood,' sayes Robin:
`By thee I set right nought:
My name is Robin Hood of Barnesdale,
A ffellow thou has long sought.

(verse 35)

Barnsdale, originally Beornsdale, is situated in Yorkshire between Doncaster and Wentbridge, a village south of Pontefract. The name was probably first applied to the valley of the Skell, a very minor tributary of the Don. However, by the time A Gest was compiled, it had apparently come to mean the whole area from Wentbridge south towards the Skell and Doncaster. Indeed, in the ballads it is used at times to mean Wentbridge itself.

The name is perpetuated by Barnsdale Bar, actually the junction of the A639 with the A1(M) south of Wentbridge. Within living memory this was a pleasant spot, with the turnpike tollhouse nestling amongst trees. A few miles south, the Wakefield-Doncaster road, the A638, crosses the A1. Before Doncaster was bypassed it simply joined it. This whole area was therefore an ideal spot to practice highway robbery, with the Great North Road, Britain's chief highway, forming the vertical link, and two important side roads feeding it.

Within the area, a number of surviving monuments named after Robin Hood have early origins - although none has escaped restoration or rebuilding in the last two centuries.

Robin Hood's Well gives its name to the hamlet, once a staging post for the Royal Mail stagecoaches and now a lay-by off the south-bound carriageway of the A1(M). The well itself was first mentioned by local antiquary Roger Dodsworth in 1622, and had a Robin Hood's Stone close by, first mentioned in a deed of 1422 lodged at Monk Bretton Priory at Barnsley. The stone has since disappeared, but the well stands isolated on the lay-by, removed from its spring of water because it stood in the way of the modern dual carriageway.

Hidden in woodland alongside the A638 at Hampole is Little John's Well. First recorded in 1838, this may mark the spread of the legend rather than a genuine association, although it is in the right area for an early derivation. Like Robin Hood's Well not far away, this spring no longer carries water, turned dry in recent times as a result of quarrying behind it. The vertical stone marking the spring shows signs of antiquity, and could possibly be a Roman gravestone, whilst the collecting basin, badly damaged by vehicles, is 18th century.

Robin Hood's legendary first meeting with Little John took place at a tiny footbridge over a stream, wide enough for only one person to pass at a time. Each man's refusal to let the other pass led to a duel with quarterstaffs in which Robin was beaten. The original association of Barnsdale with the valley of the Skell raises the interesting possibility that the duel took place on a bridge over the Skell between Skelbrooke and the Great North Road. The traces of any such footbridge still await discovery by archaeology.

In verse 21 of A Gest of Robyn Hode, Little John, Much the Miller's Son and Will Scarlet `looked into' Barnsdale, which in this case is assumed to mean the village of Wentbridge:

But as they loked into Bernysdale,
Bi a derne [straight] strete,
Then came a knyght ridinghe,
Full sone they gan hym mete.

The village has a picturesque stone bridge over the Went which carried all the A1 traffic until bypassed in 1965. This is also mentioned in the ballads:

`Y mete hem bot [but] at Went breg [bridge],' s[e]yde Lyttyl John
(Robin Hood and the Potter, verse 6)

The present bridge is largely 18th century, but almost certainly encloses an earlier bridge. A surviving remnant of the original medieval highway, on which Robin Hood may have practised his brigandage, climbs through the woods out of the valley to the north. Signed as a public bridle-way, this track was the only route until the adjacent cutting was blasted through the rocks to provide a safer road for the mail coaches.

Wentbridge Church is a Victorian foundation, so where is the chapel Robin boasts of building in A Gest of Robyn Hood?

`I made a chapell in Bernysdale, that semely is to se,
It is of Mary Magdaleyne,
And thereto wolde I be.'

(verse 440)

Skelbrooke Church, close to Wentbridge, was medieval but was demolished and rebuilt in the last century. Fragments only survive of 12th century work and the dedication is now different. Historical rather than archaeological research may eventually suggest the connection with Robin's chapel.

This brief survey has not been intended as an attack on the Nottinghamshire tourist industry. Their Robin Hood is largely a product of the last two centuries. In contrast, the locations described here still retain something of the atmosphere of the medieval highway, in spite of the thunder of the nearby motorway and the trunk routes which feed it. This heavy traffic, despite the passing of the centuries, shows that Robin Hood chose his business premises wisely.

Eric Houlder is Chairman and Field Director of the Pontefract & District Archaeological Society. He is also a freelance photographer specialising in excavation and palaeopathological close-up pictures.

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