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Cover of British Archaeology 84

Issue 84

September/October 2005



We found new megalith, say dowsers

Good news for Silbury Hill - if money is found

Orkney dig first to date gold and amber jewellery

Objectors scent victory at Stonehenge

Exeter bids for new students

Stone plaque is first neolithic face in over a century

In Brief


Saving the H Blocks - Long Kesh/Maze: An archaeological opportunity
The artefacts of fear...and why we should preserve them - Laura McAtackney questions Northern Island proposal

Cemetery requiem for a lost age
Roberta Gilchrist reveals extraordinary Christian practices

Lake rescue
Saving Llangors Crannog, a unique medieval Welsh royal island, from erosion

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ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


Requiem For a Lost Age

Conventional wisdom said medieval Christian graves – the plain remains of the pious – held little interest for archaeologists. Now cemetery excavations have revealed an extraordinary world of fear, superstition, care and mourning. Roberta Gilchrist reports on a major new study.

Archaeologists share a deep-rooted fascination with rituals surrounding death and burial. We are drawn to ancient mortuary evidence for its potential to reveal elements of private life, the exotic and macabre. Death, more than any other aspect of life, reveals the ancient world as "other", a foil for our sanitised, western practices.

Burial rites of the more recent past have attracted less interest: they are, supposedly, more directly linked with our own familiar traditions, and therefore likely to yield few surprises. Until just a few decades ago, archaeologists had to justify excavating medieval Christian cemeteries. The exhumation of Christian remains was sometimes regarded as unseemly, and their unfurnished graves scant reward for the recording of complex, stratified sequences. Even recent commentators have suggested that diversity in burial practices had disappeared completely by the 12th century, and that by the later middle ages, burials had no grave goods or individual expression.

In the past 20 years, many Christian cemeteries have been excavated prior to new developments: the largest is the hospital of St Mary Spital, London, with nearly 11,000 graves recovered by the Museum of London Archaeology Service (MoLAS). These major projects have generated substantial, well-recorded samples that provide an opportunity to revisit later medieval death and burial.

To this end, Barney Sloane and I, working with MoLAS, analysed 5,000 graves excavated in England, Wales and Scotland, with associated gis mapping of 50 monastic cemeteries; we studied a further 3,000 graves from parish churches, cathedrals and Jewish cemeteries for comparison. This quantified database has allowed us to define trends in monastic burial practice and rites c1050–1600AD across the country. Contrary to some expectations, the evidence reveals a fascinating variety of traditions and beliefs.

Prayer and memory

Monastic cemeteries contained distinct zones for interment of members of the religious community, their wealthy patrons, and – from the 11th or 12th century – a wider range of ordinary people who sought burial in a religious house. Burial in monastic ground was valued because of the importance of prayer in sustaining memory of the dead. By this date, it was believed that the dead did not proceed directly to salvation, but instead passed to the intermediate state of purgatory, where they experienced a prolonged and painful purgation of their sins. Medieval people believed that the suffering of the dead could be eased by the prayers of the living, and monastic prayers of intercession were valued most highly.

Rituals of death and burial come to us from the illustrated Book of Hours, personal wills and the Ars Moriendi – a popular book on how to die well. Preparation for death included deathbed prayers and the last rites, administered by a priest. The body was washed and prepared for burial by the women of the family (or by the monastic infirmarer, in the case of a monk or nun), and either shrouded or placed in a coffin. The deceased was carried in procession to the church for the funeral. The grave was prepared while the requiem mass took place, and a procession then conveyed the deceased to the cemetery. A variety of subsequent memorial practices ensured intercession: prayers and funerary rites were repeated one week, one month and one year after the funeral. The wealthy sometimes arranged for personal anniversary rites and chantry prayers to be conducted in perpetuity, while ordinary parishioners were remembered collectively on the feast of All Souls.

From the mid 11th and into the 12th century, a number of rites developed that were linked specifically with the burials of religious personnel. It became common to inter monks and nuns in their consecration clothing, and with the emblems of their religious status.

Female skulls excavated from the nunnery of Clementhorpe, York, and the Bridgettine double monastery at Syon, Middlesex, showed evidence of staining from copper alloy pins, suggesting that nuns were buried in their headdresses. Abbots were buried in their full office regalia; the richness of the dress displayed in bishops' and archbishops' burials suggests that ecclesiastical corpses were dressed for a period of lying in state. Priests were buried with symbols of their clerical status: copies in wax, ceramic or metal of the vessels with which they officiated at the mass. Abbots, abbesses and bishops were buried with their croziers, the pastoral staffs symbolic of their office. Some of these seem to have been the actual staffs used by the deceased ecclesiastics. Others were specially made for funerary use, in base metal or, in a unique case from Chichester cathedral, in jet.

Fashion and display

The clothing and grave goods placed with religious corpses distinguished them from secular people. This would have signaled their religious status at the last judgement, when it was believed that all the dead would be resurrected, but burial rites also played an important role in contemporary social debates. The distinctive grave goods of the priest developed precisely at the time when the priesthood was under reform, when efforts were made to stop priests marrying, and passing benefices to their sons. Religious dress and grave goods were used to differentiate celibate priests and monks from ordinary secular men. Through close chronological study, we have concluded that Christian grave goods were introduced specifically to consolidate religious identities.

Innovation in secular burials came slightly later. By c1200–1300 it was more common to place personal items on the corpse, including jewellery, domestic seals, coins, papal seals (bullae) spindlewhorls and clothing. Fasteners are all that usually survive of clothes, but where preservation conditions are good, as at Hull Augustinian friary, we glimpse the richness of secular burial traditions. People sported embroidered and vividly coloured wool and linen garments, high fashion tunics, breeches, a liripipe (a hood with a tail) and a variety of shoes that were everyday or best dress, rather than made for the grave. Treatment of both body and grave suggests that some corpses were prepared for a period of display, either laid out in the home or monastery, or placed in the cemetery. Grave constructions were now designed to be seen, suggesting that graves lay open for prolonged rites in the cemetery. Grave cuts, cists and coffins were sometimes lined with lime or chalk, planks of wood or tile, to create a visual backdrop for the corpse; the deceased's head was framed by support stones.

By around 1300AD embalming, though used earlier by the aristocracy and prominent ecclesiastics, was more common. The desire to preserve the body – whether for view, or to maintain its integrity for the resurrection – led to diversity in funerary containers. The wealthy used lead coffins to preserve their remains, or wrapped the body in lead sheets or strips, or shrouds impregnated with wax. Excavated examples are rare, but there was an extraordinary survival from the Benedictine monastery of St Bees, on the Cumbrian coast. A coffin prepared in the manner of a Russian doll was recovered from the chancel of the church: the outer wooden coffin contained clay, which held a sealed lead shroud, which in turn contained two layers of linen shroud coated with beeswax, in which the body was wrapped. The treatment accorded the St Bees man may have been rare, but the use of coffins for medieval burial was more common than previously thought.

Historians of death have suggested that medieval coffins were used for transporting the body, not for burial. It is true that most corpses were conveyed in coffins that served as a communal, reusable resource, but a considerable number were also interred in their own timber coffins. When we compared cemeteries, it became clear that coffin use was not always linked directly to social status or wealth. For example, at the Jewish cemeteries in York and Winchester, coffin use was extremely high, calculated by the excavators to represent 93% and 75% of all burials, respectively.

These figures reveal a specific cultural attitude towards the dead body. Jewish tradition regards corpses as unclean – they require purification and containment, to be kept at a safe distance from the living. The highest level of coffin use at any Christian cemetery in Britain is the Black Death cemetery at East Smithfield, London (approximately 50%). At Hull Augustinian friary, the well-preserved timber coffins have been dated dendrochronologically – using tree rings – to reveal a peak during the major plague epidemics. It is unlikely that these individuals died of plague since plague victims would have been disposed of rapidly in pits. Regardless of health, during the height of the disease the prosperous chose to be buried in well-constructed coffins. In these examples, containers for the dead were used to limit pollution or contagion, or as a response to anxiety surrounding the diseased or decaying body.

Magic and healing

Some of the most evocative grave goods may be linked to the doctrines of purgatory and resurrection, and the resulting beliefs that both the body and soul of the deceased required continued care and protection. Apotropaic items (believed to avert evil) placed with the corpse were added when the body was washed and shrouded: for example, coins or stones placed in the mouth, crosses or papal bullae placed on the chest, and padlocks placed near the pelvis. Many talismans were placed with children, revealing that the family prepared the corpse for burial, and demonstrating their concern for its continued welfare. Examples include a pilgrim's badge buried with a child near the south porch of St Augustine's, Canterbury; and a cross recovered from near the mouth of a child buried in the church of Pontefract Priory, Yorkshire.

Healing, whether connected with medical, spiritual or popular cures, was a persistent theme in the treatment of the medieval dead. Evidence of medical care is occasionally seen in items worn by the corpse, which were presumably believed to possess continued efficacy after death. These include copper alloy plates used to heal and protect joint injuries or disease, and a hernia truss from St Mary Merton, Surrey. Certain materials used for mortuary objects were believed to have intrinsic healing properties. Particularly significant are the jet, amber and quartz items, valued as mortuary goods from prehistoric times onwards for their electrostatic and refractive properties. In the middle ages, the use of such materials was part of a mainstream belief in the healing power of gems to rebalance the humours, as set out in the 11th century lapidary written by Bishop Marbode of Rennes.

Certain organic materials may have been included within the coffin or grave specifically for their healing qualities. Evidence of vegetation sometimes survives: plants such as hyssop, heather and box may have been popular remedies or evergreen symbols of eternity. More specific evidence for charms has been recorded at St Mary Spital, including an inscribed ring from a female skeleton, interpreted as a charm to ward off sudden death; and a small textile package or bundle, possibly containing an organic charm, found between the legs of a female skeleton.

From the 12th century, the church was tolerant towards "white" magic proffering miraculous cures not unlike those associated with the relics and shrines of Christian saints. Hints of magic and healing, similar to rituals surrounding Roman and Saxon burial, appear in medieval graves just as the belief in purgatory takes pervasive hold: the protective objects found in graves unite religion with popular belief and folk traditions. Such items also reflect the agency of the family in burial rituals, and reveal continuing bonds between living and dead.

Looking freshly at medieval burial, we detect individual expression and agency amidst the apparent uniformity of Christian practice. Patterns in grave goods, clothed burial and coffin use can be connected with wider social concerns with religious identity, increasing social differentiation and anxieties surrounding the body. I have introduced only a few themes here, to reveal insights into the rich religious culture of medieval Britain – by turns tender, magical and full of hope.

This project was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Board and conducted at the University of Reading, with an English Heritage publication grant. Archaeological units throughout the country generously allowed access to unpublished data.Referenced excavations were conducted by MoLAS (St Mary Spital, London; Black Death cemetery, East Smithfield; St Mary Merton), York Archaeological Trust (Nunnery of Clementhorpe; Jewish cemetery in York), Time Team (Bridgettine monastery, Syon), Humberside Archaeological Partnership (Hull Augustinian friary), Winchester Museums Service (Jewish cemetery, Winchester), Canterbury Archaeological Trust (StAugustine's, Canterbury), Deirdre O'Sullivan (St Bees Benedictine monastery, Cumbria). Requiem: the Medieval Monastic Cemetery in Britain, by Roberta Gilchrist and Barney Sloane, will be published in October (Museum of London, ISBN 1901992594, £29.95) with the database archived at the Archaeological Data Service from early October (

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