YORK archaeologists have been shortlisted for an award after unearthing a mass grave of Cromwell’s soldiers in Fishergate.
The mass grave from the Siege of York in 1644 at the former medieval All Saints’ Church site at the junction of Kent Street and Fawcett Street is one of five finds nominated for magazine Current Archaeology’s Rescue Dig Of The Year in its Archaeology Awards.
The award is for archaeological survey and excavation carried out in areas revealed or threatened by development, or preventative measures taken on a previously unexcavated site.
On-Site Archaeology, which made the unexpected discovery in 2007, is up against the finding of a rare, low-status Anglo-Saxon settlement in a quarry in Northumbria, a drowned Mesolithic landscape off the coast of the Isle of Wight, the largest coin hoard found in a single pot in Britain, called The Frome Hoard, in Somerset and archaeological endeavours in Ireland.
The 11th century church of All Saint’s was documented in York, but previously there had been no physical evidence of it, let alone the mass graves with 113 members of Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentary force who are believed to have died from disease – as archaeologists found no battle injuries.
The excavation found the skeletons tightly packed and neatly arranged in parallel rows, with most laid face-down in the dirt or on their side, but no buckles, buttons or jewellery were discovered. About 87 of them were male and most were aged between 35 and 49.
Site manager Graham Bruce said they were very surprised to find the graves. “It’s certainly a very unusual one, especially the mass graves.
“There are very few parallels in Britain of mass graves from the English Civil War era. There’s a mass grave at Towton, but that’s a known battle site.
“It has certainly got to raise the profile of the company and archaeology in York. That York is big for archaeology is relatively well-known, but some people say ‘you’ve been digging for so long in York, don’t you know everything?’ I’ve been digging for over 20 years but we’ve still only really scratched the surface.”
The winner will be announced at the Current Archaeology Live conference at the British Museum on Saturday, February 26.
Update: This was the second episode of series Two of History Cold Case on BBC Two, last week (o7.07.2011). It’s still available to watch on BBCiPlayer (13.07.2011):
In 2008 the remains of 113 bodies were discovered in 10 mass graves just beyond the city walls of York. The graves were within the grounds of a church that would have stood on the site up until the 1580s.
Every single one of bodies discovered was male and amongst them were two sets of remains which had particularly troubled the archaeologists since the excavation, the bones of which showed signs of severe disfigurement.
The History Cold Case Team headed up by world-renowned anthropologist Professor Sue Black, using a mix of 21st-century forensic science techniques and historical detective work, conclude that the bodies were no doubt those of sailors fighting as soldiers in the English Civil War who died of Typhus fever.
Using carbon dating, bone isotopic analysis, facial reconstruction and historical information, the cold case unit from the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification at the University of Dundee piece together what happened.
On first examination of the bodies, there are clear signs of healed trauma and bone breaks, as well as those of serious infections but no signs of an obvious cause of death.
The carbon dating of the bones shows that they dated from the period of 1480 and 1687, the English Civil War taking place between 1642 and 1646.
Historically during the English Civil War York was the key to controlling the entire of the North of England, a stronghold much protected and fought over. In particular historical records recount that in the spring of 1644 Parliamentary forces pushed forth and laid siege to the city. The mass graves were found on the side of the City Walls where Lord Fairfax’s Parliamentary forces were camped.
The Isotope tests confirm that the men in the mass graves ate a diet high in marine life that was in line with that of Lord Fairfax’s troops, the majority of who came from the Yorkshire port of Hull.
Civil War Expert Andrew Hopper explains: “Quite a large proportion of Lord Fairfax’s parliamentarian army from Yorkshire came from Hull. There was a large merchant fleet based here and many of Seamen volunteered to fight for parliament.”
Of the two disfigured bodies, one was incredibly muscular and well built, proved by the tendon marks on his bones, but he also suffered from a rare con-genital carpal fusion that meant his hand bones were fused together.
The second of the two suffered from the same disease but his bone fusion was far more severe. His forearm and upper arm were fused at right angles the elbow, creating a permanent L-shape. Similarly his lower leg and thigh were fused at the knee.
This rare disability is a genetically linked abnormality, but despite this, the DNA testing confirmed that the men were not related by mother and the DNA was not of high enough quality to determine whether they were related at all.
Professor Sue Black said: “It is possible that they could still be related, we just can’t show it. I think the chances of having this condition in individuals who are not related and are in pretty much the same grave at the same time would be stretching it a bit far.”
Neither the bones of the two disfigured men nor those of the other 111 showed any clear sign of cause of death. On further investigation Dr Xanthe Mallett discovers that contagious diseases at the time of the English Civil War were rife. Typhus Fever in particular was common and highly contagious, showing no long lasting trauma to bones.
When the Cold Case team presented the results to the local community, Graham Bruce the local archaeologist who supervised the initial excavation said: “It really fleshes out those people that we’re dealing with during that quite tumultuous period of English history.”
Professor Sue Black said: “It is a huge historical story but it’s also an incredibly important story. I’m not aware in literature of anywhere of this type of remains ever having been recorded before. I think this is a first.”