HS2 dig uncovers Birmingham’s 19th-century inhabitants

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Archaeologists from MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) Headland have completed their 12-month excavation of the Park Street burial ground in Birmingham, which was part of the construction of a new HS2 station. Some 6,500 skeletons were excavated from the cemetery, which was open from 1810 to 1873 to deal with overflow from the church of St Martin’s-in-the-Bullring during a period of huge population growth in the city.
Brick-lined tombs were relatively common in the southern part of the cemetery, where there were more wealthy burials
Brick-lined tombs were relatively common in the southern part of the cemetery, where there were more wealthy burials. [Image: ©HS2, courtesy of MOLA Headland]

The burials in the north half of the Park Street cemetery are particularly dense and it appears that additional material was imported to raise the ground level so that a second layer of burials could be interred after the space was full. There is also a higher rate of child mortality in the individuals buried in this area, compared to those in the southern part of the burial ground, which contains more individual burials and brick-built crypts.

These brick-lined tombs, together with some of the ornate coffins within, reflect the wealth of the families buried in this area of the site. This is in contrast to the northern area of the cemetery which contains almost exclusively simple earth-cut graves, as well as the remains of more than 40 individuals whose bodies had been dissected after death, probably during anatomy classes at the local medical school. Some of these individuals had objects placed within their body cavity, including bricks, lumps of coal, and glass and ceramic vessels, apparently to replace removed organs such as the brain and lungs.

Archaeologists and osteologists examining a burial in an earth-cut grave.
Archaeologists and osteologists examining a burial in an earth-cut grave. [Image: ©HS2, courtesy of MOLA Headland]

The skeletons reflect the living conditions of many people in industrial Birmingham at the time. Preliminary investigations have revealed evidence of scurvy and rickets, various infections, joint diseases, and poor dental health, all typical of a 19th-century urban population, many of whom would have been living in poverty.

In addition to the human remains, a range of artefacts have also been recovered from the burials including a number of dress accessories, and ceramic plates which may be associated with an old folk tradition involving placing salt with the deceased. Other artefacts found include bead necklaces in several children’s graves, coins, toys, a bone-handled knife, and a metal figurine.

Biographical information on the individuals buried in Park Street is lacking as the burial register for the church also covers the graveyards at St Martin’s and St Bartholomew’s, so it is not known who exactly was buried where. It is hoped that the discovery of name plates with a limited number of the burials, combined with skeletal analysis and historical records, can be used to create more complete biographies for some of these individuals.

Analysis of the material from Park Street is ongoing and currently consists of quantifying and categorising the information gathered in order to determine the research focus for ongoing archaeological investigation. After this, the human remains will be reburied together in consecrated ground, in a location determined through consultation with HS2 and representatives from the Church of England.

This news article appears in issue 357 of Current Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to CA magazine, click here.

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