Review – Lost Lives, New Voices: unlocking the stories of the Scottish soldiers from the Battle of Dunbar

1 min read
Christopher Gerrard et al.
Oxbow Books, £20
ISBN 978-1785708473
Review Warren Bailie

The discovery in 2013 of an assemblage of human remains from Palace Green, in the shadow of Durham Cathedral, led to wider research to retrace the lives of Scottish soldiers following the Battle of Dunbar in 1650 (see CA 308).

This book is a prime example of how combining historical, genealogical, and archaeological research can bring to life the individuals represented in an archaeological assemblage. Each discipline on its own can only provide glimpses into our past, but brought together they can provide much more vivid representations.

The research for this book demonstrated the use of currently available scientific techniques to draw as much information as possible from the assemblage. This included the usual analysis of the skeletal remains for trauma and pathologies, but also included analysis of the dental tartar for evidence of health and diet, analysis of dentine to reconstruct dietary life-histories, and the targeting of bone protein to establish signs of scurvy during the life of some individuals. A facial reconstruction of one of the better-preserved individuals was also possible.

The isotope analysis identified possible origins of the men, and the refinement of the dating using Bayesian analysis provided greater certainty that their deaths were contemporary with the Battle of Dunbar. The analysis of the skeletal remains has provided a new insight not only into the health, nutrition, and lifestyle of these individuals, but also the wider population of 17th-century Scotland and northern England.

This approach is, unfortunately, only possible for relatively recent human remains, assisted as it was by genealogical research undertaken by Americans in search of their Scottish origins. Had it not been for the genealogical work, the links with New England (and other destinations) and indentured Scots following the battle would have been all the more tenuous. Included in this book is a comprehensive record of named individuals and, in many cases, a detailed account of their new lives abroad.

It is a fascinating example of how a multidisciplinary approach can benefit the historian, genealogist, and archaeologist alike. An all too rare opportunity.  

This review appeared in CA 349.

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