What can a dozen skeletons tell us about life and death in Britain through the ages? Lucia Marchini visits an exhibition at Leeds City Museum to find out.
It is not uncommon for development-led archaeology to uncover human remains – fascinating traces of individuals otherwise lost to history, which often offer intimate insights into their lives and the world they lived in. The 12 skeletons discovered during such excavations that have been selected for the latest exhibition at Leeds City Museum, Skeletons: our buried bones, were not just witnesses to important episodes in British history. Some were even active participants or victims, and it is their bones that speak for them.
All the skeletons are presented uniformly, with the trappings of burials – such as coffins and grave goods – stripped away, and the remains themselves presented in anatomical positions, so that different bones can be seen and the skeletons compared more easily. This touring exhibition is based on the Wellcome Collection’s Skeletons: London’s buried bones (shown in 2008), and has so far visited the Hunterian in Glasgow and the M Shed in Bristol. Each museum has produced a different display using skeletons drawn from their own collections as well as those of neighbouring institutions, complemented by others selected from the Museum of London’s extensive human bioarchaeology centre. Each place that the tour stops, therefore, has a unique regional focus, but each display also includes both male and female skeletons, and represents a broad span of archaeological periods from prehistory to the 19th century.
In Leeds, the museum’s chronological display features seven skeletons from Yorkshire and five from London, with the earliest individuals being a pair from an Iron Age double crouched burial in Wattle Syke near Wetherby, West Yorkshire. The woman (aged over 46 years old) and slightly younger man (36-45 years old) had been laid to rest between 170 BC and AD 30, and their bones show signs of wear and tear from their strenuous lives. The man’s remains preserve traces of large muscle attachments on his shoulders, arms, and legs, which suggest that hard manual labour had formed a frequent part of his life, as well as signs of a healed infection to his lower legs. We can also glean clues about the woman’s health: she had a non-cancerous tumour on her skull, and suffered from osteoarthritis and three dental abscesses. How this pair died and what their relationship was remains unknown. As with all the skeletons, they are shown alongside specially commissioned photography showing the present state of their often unassuming findspots.
Town and country
Also near Wetherby is Dalton Parlours, the only Roman villa excavated in West Yorkshire. Here, the skeleton of a muscular man dating from AD 300-370 was unearthed, along with those of 14 other individuals, including ten infants. He was buried in an intriguing position, face-down, with his head, neck, and spine arched back (perhaps indicating a spasm from a fatal disease such as tetanus), and his legs and arms bent. In life, he had dental issues, including tooth decay, gum disease, and abscesses, and in the centuries between his burial and his excavation he had suffered further indignities thanks to a plough that removed his feet and part of his lower legs.
Complementing this rural Roman is another man from Spitalfields, London. Buried between AD 250 and 400, this male, aged over 46 years old, had osteochondritis dissecans (dislodged bone) in both knees. The condition, thought to be caused by excessive use of the joint, normally develops at a young age (early 20s), so he may have suffered from it for decades. Signs of sinusitis and inflammation also hint that he lived in a polluted area.
One skeleton has made an appearance in each incarnation of the exhibition: a male plague victim from East Smithfield, London. His bones reveal no clues about how he died as the plague was too fast-acting to leave a trace on the skeleton (though he clearly led an eventful life; the point of an iron projectile, most likely an arrowhead, is still embedded in his spine with healed bone around it). But we do know that this was a victim of the Black Death between 1348 and 1350 as he was one of many individuals found in a ‘catastrophe’ burial site attributed to this episode. Another 14th-century East Smithfield burial, a young woman from St Mary Graces, has no visible signs of disease or trauma on her bones either – but her skull has been stained green by copper waste in the earth from the Royal Mint, which was later built over her resting place.
An intriguing female skeleton, buried at All Saints’ church, York, during the 15th century, likely belongs to an anchoress known from historical records as Lady Isabel German, who lived in isolation in the churchyard between 1428 and 1448. The severe osteoporosis in her bones is unsurprising in someone who lived in a small, confined space for such a long time. But what is more unexpected is the evidence of a sexually transmitted infection, venereal syphilis.
Human remains yield many clues about how people lived, from broken bones (healed correctly or incorrectly) and signs of rickets to dental wear from smoking pipes. But some skeletons also carry clear evidence of how the individuals died. At Towton Hall near Tadcaster, North Yorkshire, a number of tightly packed shallow graves were uncovered: burials from the Battle of Towton in 1461 (see CA 171). One casualty of this bloody encounter of the War of the Roses is a soldier who met an undeniably brutal death, sustaining far more injuries than were needed to kill him. He was struck by a poleaxe, leaving square injuries in his skull, stabbed in the right shoulder, and decapitated.
A Parliamentary soldier, excavated from one of ten mass graves at All Saints’, also died as a result of conflict, in 1644. But his death was not a violent one. Although he had suffered an injury to his skull, this had healed before he met his end. Instead, it was an infectious disease such as dysentery, typhoid, or typhus – prevalent during 17th-century sieges – that was most likely to have killed the man, leaving no marks on his skeleton.
Not only does the exhibition offer an insightful display and interpretation of these varied skeletons, it also explores some of the analytical techniques involved in their study, and the issues involved in the collection and curation of human remains. Above all, the collection highlights how much exciting archaeology lies hidden all around us.
Skeletons: our buried bones runs until 7 January 2018 at Leeds City Museum. Admission is free. Visit www.leeds.gov.uk/museumsandgalleries/Pages/leedscitymuseum/Skeletons.aspx for more information.
This review appeared in CA 333.