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Cover of British Archaeology 88

Issue 88

May/June 2006



Meadowsweet flowers in prehistoric graves

Strange fish

"Find of several lifetimes" – cathedral archaeologist

Oldest houses in Scotland

Archaeologists mourn loss of two popular colleagues

In Brief


End of the line: St Pancras Station
How many graves would you have saved? Phil Emery rescues French revolution refugee history.

The floors that Rome built
Stephen R Cosh and David S Neal are recording every Roman mosaic.

Protests at Bling King's grave
What can the Prittlewell protesters hope to achieve?

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ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


End of the line

In 1860s London, construction of the St Pancras railway terminus disturbed a packed cemetery, to great public concern. The new Channel Tunnel Rail Link terminus led to further exhumation in the same cemetery, to repeated protests. Have we learnt nothing in 140 years? Phil Emery thinks we have.

St Pancras Old Church occupies a particularly interesting place in London's history. With possible pre-Norman conquest origins, it has been claimed as the oldest surviving church in London. However, it was only in the 18th century that substantial enlargement of the churchyard took place, reflecting dramatic population growth. At this time, St Pancras churchyard became a customary place of burial for prominent citizens and aristocrats. Pauper burials were also increasing, however, and it is clear that the people interred here were a very diverse group.

Long associated with London's Roman Catholic community, St Pancras became the natural resting place for refugees from the French revolution. As well as aristocrats and their households fleeing the escalating violence of the reign of terror (September 1793–July 1794), the new arrivals also included economic migrants, some of them artisans producing luxury items whose bourgeois market in Paris had collapsed. Further, some 5,000 clerics refusing to sign the oath of allegiance to the civil constitution of the clergy, and fearing deportation to French Guiana, also sought asylum. Many settled in Somers Town and Bloomsbury, and several hundred are known to have been buried at St Pancras.

The parish of St Pancras lay on the fringe of the growing metropolis and offered cheap housing. It absorbed successive waves of migrant workers associated with construction of the Regent's Canal in the 1820s, the Imperial Company Gasworks in 1822, and the railways from the 1830s onwards. The burial ground saw very heavy use. It was closed in 1854 with the passing of acts of parliament for the provision of municipal cemeteries on the outskirts of London.

Disturbance of the burial ground soon followed with the construction of the Midland Railway in the 1860s. This led to public outcry. Arthur Blomfield, representing the Bishop of London, appointed Thomas Hardy as his deputy to oversee exhumation works at St Pancras. Aburial pit 40 feet (12m) deep was excavated just north of the burial ground, on the site of the present Coroner's Court, for the reinterment of the remains of over 7,000 individuals.

In 1882, some 16 years later, Hardy - by now a celebrated novelist and poet - was moved by his experiences to write a poem, The Levelled Churchyard. Its second verse reads:

We late lamented, resting here
Are mixed to human jam
And each to each exclaims in fear
I know not which I am!

Over 130 years later, a second partial clearance was required to make way for the new London terminus for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. It was clear that the station deck extension for the long platforms needed by Eurostar trains would have a major impact on the southern part of the burial ground: in 1793 the churchyard had been extended into a new burying ground and the older part closed. However, the operational railway both above and below ground meant this area could not be fully evaluated by archaeologists in advance.

From February 2002 to June 2003, Burial Ground Services uk exhumed the burials. Project managers Rail Link Engineering appointed Gifford as the archaeological specialist, to undertake a watching brief on the cemetery clearance works. We worked with a field team from Pre-Construct Archaeology led by Kevin Wooldridge, specialists from the Museum of London Specialist Services, and documentary researcher Chris Phillpotts.

It was clear from the outset that this was going to be a challenging and constrained environment for all parties. Archaeologists had to accommodate the demands of the project timetable, working in two shifts to cover 14-hour days and using artificial lighting when necessary. Access restrictions often governed the level of archaeological recording. The exhumation contractor began by machining a series of trenches, 3m wide by 3m deep, which were separated by 2m baulks and cleared individually to full depth. This methodology was designed to safeguard the nearby Midland Main Line railway and Thameslink Tunnel, which remained in use. It severely limited the safe working space available for exhumation operatives and archaeologists, and inhibited archaeological retrieval.

These difficulties were understood by everyone, and so two small areas in the southern end of the cemetery were set aside for detailed archaeological recording. Controlled excavation of 83 inhumations (all of them subsequently studied osteologically) in this sample area permitted direct stratigraphic recording, and careful definition of some of the relatively flimsy and poorly preserved coffins in the cemetery's upper levels. During the later years of the cemetery's use, when overcrowding had reached scandalous proportions, coffins had been laid side by side and head to toe in long burial trenches.

Pragmatic response

TWe took control of works in specific areas to ensure a meaningful archaeological record, a pragmatic response to the demanding conditions under which exhumation was taking place. This came at the cost of partial disengagement from the wider exhumation works, yet even this compromise was to prove unsustainable. Under pressure from the hectic project schedule in autumn 2002, archaeological site recording had to be suspended on November 15 and the sample excavation abandoned. For two days exhumation continued mechanically, unattended by archaeologists. This development aroused concern in many quarters, including the Church of England, English Heritage, the cba and Rescue, as well as the general public and news media. It became clear to all parties - including the client and contractors - that archaeologists had to be involved with the exhumation process, and discussions took place accordingly.

The project management proposed rules of archaeological engagement. All excavation and lifting of human remains was to be undertaken by cemetery clearance operatives: archaeologists would not clean coffins or their contents, and were to make their record from the trench edges. It was clear to the archaeologists that these conditions would make it difficult to deliver a meaningful record or to guarantee the provenance of osteological samples. We argued that the cornerstone of any summary recording procedure was accurate three-dimensional surveying of burials. This might provide some basis for reconstructing the broad sequence of events in the cemetery, offsetting the lack of opportunities for hands-on stratigraphic recording - but could only be achieved if archaeologists were allowed into the excavation area itself.

Acknowledging these issues, Rail Link Engineering and the construction contractor agreed that an archaeologist would be allowed to survey four corner points on a coffin if its occupant was being recovered for osteological study, and two points if it was not. The construction programme was adjusted accordingly, and exhumation resumed in 2003, on January 6. The archaeological watching brief and exhumation works were both now made easier by the resolution of a workable methodology and improved understanding of the disparate parties involved; the contractor was allowed to machine soil in a series of shallow spits as originally envisaged.

Duncan Sayer supervised the three-dimensional recording of over 1,300 burials. Establishing the relative positions of individual burials has been of huge significance, both in reconstructing the stratigraphic sequence of coffins and in matching graves to the burial registers. For the period 1793-1804, most entries in the parish burial registers offer an alphanumeric grave plot reference. Kevin Wooldridge has decoded this system by matching the positions of a sufficient number of identified burials with register entries, allowing the identities of almost a hundred "anonymous" burials to be deduced.

Exceptional preservation

Certain inherent site characteristics affected the quality of the evidence and integrity of the recorded sample. For example, the clay soil enhanced preservation of coffins but often impeded archaeological work in the winter weather. Multiple coffins were commonly stacked within a single grave, the burial registers indicating successive (often unrelated) interments in a single plot within only a few days. Where coffins had broken there was the potential for jumbling bones between individuals. In many instances, ground pressure had caused the sides of the coffins to slump and twist inward, compounding these problems.

Grave cuts excavated into the clay acted as sumps, so coffins at the base of each were usually found to have been permanently filled with water. The resulting anaerobic preservation led to remarkable survivals of floral tributes and grave clothes, but could be a mixed blessing when it resulted in preservation of human soft tissue - for health and safety reasons, it had been agreed that this would be subject to palliative treatment by the exhumation contractor, precluding retention for osteological study.

The single most valuable facet of the evidence was the exceptional preservation of the decorative metal coffin fittings. The collection of c1,100 fittings was significant not only in arthistorical terms, but also because it included over 150 inscribed breastplates indicating the name (and, by implication, sex), age and date of death of the deceased. Their manufacture from thin iron sheet, sometimes dipped in tin, makes their legibility all the more remarkable. At the postexcavation stage, it is the association of these legible inscriptions with individual inhumations that has allowed integrated study of human osteology and documentary evidence on an unprecedented scale for a flat (that is, non-crypt) cemetery.

Unsurprisingly, many of the inscriptions were in French. The most senior of the emigrant clerics identified during exhumation was Arthur Richard Dillon, Archbishop of Narbonne and Primate of Languedoc. He had been provided for in retirement by his cousin, Viscount Dillon, who lived in London. The archbishop had been buried with his fine set of porcelain dentures - a French innovation that enjoyed only short-lived acceptance in Britain. Natasha Powers is investigating the possibility that these were by Nicholas Dubois de Chemant, who had a furnace at the Sèvres factory and obtained a royal patent for "mineral paste teeth" from Louis XVI in 1789, before leaving for England as an economic migrant in 1792.

Hard decisions

The treatment of post-medieval burials encountered during developments continues to arouse debate, amongst archaeologists and others. The issues involve highly sensitive matters of care and propriety, as well as consideration of the academic value of data recovered from the burials by archaeologists. The conduct and the outcome of the St Pancras project have highlighted a wide range of these issues.

The use period of the 1793 burial ground extension saw London transformed. Massive population growth and immigration were accompanied by an industrial revolution and far-reaching changes in people's lives, including a rise in urban poverty. The recorded St Pancras burials - a large, tightly-dated collection of bone, in generally excellent condition - represent an extremely important sample of London's population in this turbulent period.

Analysis of the bones by Bill White and Natasha Powers at the Museum of London - a significant population-based osteological study for a post-medieval non-crypt assemblage - has now been completed. The degree of correlation between burials and the burial registers has allowed the creation of fascinating biographies for some individuals. These results may be set against demographic, census and mortality data from other sources. Jez Reeve conducted a seminal investigation of the burials in the crypt of Christ Church, Spitalfields. She has reminded us that the examination of human remains from this period is essential to complement documentary information about disease, the history of dentistry and medicine, demography and the local population, and also to genealogical studies. Of particular interest at St Pancras is the large sample of sub-adults (183 individuals), which has allowed comparison of child growth and development with other sites.

However, the significance of the St Pancras project is not purely academic. It also offers a powerful methodological and political case study, illustrating the hard decisions that archaeologists sometimes must make within a large and fast-moving project. It emphasises how important it is not merely to collect information, but to understand at an early stage how that information might need to be used during analysis, once the dust has settled. In the case of this project, archaeologists' clarity about what aspects of recording were most important to them, during dialogue with developers, was crucial in ensuring a productive outcome. It is one from which all parties could learn for the future.

Phil Emery is a principal archaeologist at Gifford.

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