Review – Bodies of Evidence

5 mins read
Face to face with one of the Scottish soldiers through a 3D facial reconstruction. (PHOTO: Palace Green Library)
In 2013, archaeologists uncovered two mass burials in Durham. Research revealed the individuals were Scottish soldiers who died in captivity after their defeat at the Battle of Dunbar in 1650 (see CA 308). Lucia Marchini visits an exhibition that explores both the science behind the grim discovery and the stories of the battle’s survivors.

When Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarian forces defeated David Leslie’s Scottish Covenanting army at Dunbar on 3 September 1650, more than 3,000 of the vanquished soldiers were marched over 100 miles south to Durham, where they were held in the disused castle and the cathedral. ‘Doubtless many ran away,’ wrote Arthur Haselrigge, who Cromwell placed in charge of the prisoners. They were fed ‘raw cabbages, leaves, and roots… which poisoned their bodies,’ and when some soldiers protested that they were unable to walk, it was ‘necessitated to kill about 30 fearing the loss of them all.’

The whereabouts of some of the estimated 1,700 men who died in captivity was not known until the discovery of human remains in two pits during building work at the city’s Palace Green Library in 2013. Today, a memorial plaque on the wall outside the library’s courtyard café commemorates those who were found at this spot and those who still lie buried beyond the boundaries of the excavation. It is at this most fitting venue that the exhibition Bodies of Evidence: how science unearthed Durham’s dark secret delves into research behind the identification of the excavated remains.

The reconstruction is based on the badly fragmented skull of the young soldier, which was first reassembled and scanned. Muscles, fat, skin, and features were then digitally added and modified according to the morphology of the skull. (IMAGE: Face Lab)

Up to 28 individuals, all male and mostly between 13 and 25 years of age, were recovered. Displays outline the various studies the bones underwent, including isotopic analysis, which suggested Scottish origins for several of the men. Radiocarbon dating places them between 1625 and 1660, while the teeth of two men had crescent-shaped facets from smoking clay pipes, in common use in Scotland after 1640. There were few signs of trauma, which supports historical accounts that the Scottish soldiers were largely inexperienced.

The men almost certainly died from dysentery, a contagious and fast-acting disease that would have left no mark on the bones. Cromwell instructed Haselrigge (whose portrait – which in fact was painted over one of Cromwell, as seen with infrared – is on view): ‘I pray you let humanity be exercised towards them.’ Yet 1,600 soldiers were dead within 50 days, and they were buried naked (there was no evidence for textiles or shoes) over a period of about 6 weeks.

None of the remains of these young soldiers are on display, as they were reburied close by at Elvet Hill Road Cemetery in May this year. The exhibition does, however, include the remains of an individual buried in a Quaker cemetery between 1711 and 1857, to give visitors a chance to take a close look at the lasting effects of medical conditions including rickets and phossy jaw (a kind of necrosis associated with the manufacture of matches) on human bones. The reburied Scottish soldiers are not entirely absent, however, thanks to different technological approaches such as 3D-printing one skeleton, and facial reconstruction by Face Lab at Liverpool John Moores University.

Palace Green Library, where the two mass graves were uncovered, is currently playing host to two exhibitions: on the Scottish Soldiers Project, and, upstairs in the Museum of Archaeology in the same building, on the important work of women in archaeology. (PHOTO: North News and Pictures)

Elsewhere, texts and artefacts – such as a Book of Common Prayer and a pendant containing a lock of the beheaded Charles I’s hair – set the battle in its 17th-century context, when debates over the problematic issues of religion and royalty loomed large. Clay pipes show how the soldiers would have smoked, and weaponry reveals how they fought. Lead shot and cannonball would have been a familiar sight on 17th-century battlefields, as would halberds, with their combination of a spike to push back a horse, and a hook to pull off its rider. Halberdmen and pikemen made up a significant proportion of the Scottish army. As for Cromwell’s soldiers, in 1651 they were awarded medals featuring a bust of Cromwell set against the battle scene.

While many men came to untimely ends at Durham, many others deemed fit and healthy enough for active labour were shipped off to the south and even across the Atlantic to America. Those based around King’s Lynn carried out drainage work in the Fens, and, as surviving documents show, were threatened with ‘death without mercy’ should they attempt to run away. Some of the men were transported to France to fight, but beyond this it remains unknown what happened to them.

It is the soldiers who were sent to New England as indentured servants that we know the most about. Objects excavated from the Hammersmith ironworks in the Massachusetts Bay Colony illustrate the sort of work they were involved in, and documents reveal details from the lives of individuals – such as punishments for drinking with Native Americans or for speaking out against the government – and where they died. Today, they have many descendants across the USA (and beyond), including the actors Jon Cryer, whose links to the Scottish soldiers were recently brought to light on the American version of the genealogy programme Who Do You Think You Are?, and Kate Upton.

Among the women featured in Shattering Perceptions are Kathleen Kenyon and Gertrude Bell, both represented in this case, with Bronze and Iron Age artefacts excavated by Kenyon in Jericho, and a medieval Persian vase collected by Bell during her travels in Iraq. (PHOTO: L Marchini)

The Scottish Soldiers Project involved a number of researchers, including Janet Montgomery, Pam Graves, and Anwen Caffell; their contributions and areas of study are explored in Shattering Perceptions: the women of archaeology, an exhibition upstairs in the Museum of Archaeology, organised by postgraduate students from Durham University to mark 100 years since the first women in Britain were able to vote.

In insightful temporary displays throughout the archaeology gallery, Shattering Perceptions uses a range of artefacts, images, and fun facts (Grace ‘Molly’ Crowfoot, for instance, who investigated textiles by experimenting with past techniques, ran into the sea in her finest frock to save some sea anemones) to introduce us to female figures in archaeology, both past and present, and many with links to Durham and the surrounding area. The women celebrated have worked in a variety of ways and in different parts of the world, and so by looking at their efforts and accomplishments, the exhibition also acquaints visitors with some of the many different aspects of archaeological study of any period, covering community archaeology, experimental archaeology, conservation, publishing, illustration, and more.


Bodies of Evidence: how science unearthed Durham’s dark secret runs at Palace Green Library until 7 October. Tickets cost £7.50 for adults (concessions are available). See for information. Shattering Perceptions: the women of archaeology runs at the Museum of Archaeology (at Palace Green Library) until 29 October. Admission is free. For details, visit

This review appeared in CA 343.

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