Medieval hospital cemetery found

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Published: Wednesday 1st April 2015 by The News Editor

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One of Britain’s largest medieval cemeteries containing the remains of more than 1,000 people – many of them scholars fallen upon hard times – has been unearthed under part of the University of Cambridge.

The hospital cemetery was found during excavations beneath the Old Divinity School at St John’s College in Cambridge.

Containing about 1,300 burials – including about 400 complete skeletons – it was found as part of the refurbishment of the Victorian building three years ago but details have only now been made public.

While the existence and location of the cemetery have been known to historians since at least the mid-twentieth century, the sheer scale and extent of the burial ground was unclear until now.

The bodies, which mostly date from a period spanning the 13th to 15th centuries, are burials from the medieval Hospital of St John the Evangelist which stood opposite the graveyard until 1511, and from which St John’s College takes its name.

Craig Cessford, from the university’s department of archaeology and anthropology, said it was one of the largest finds of its kind in the UK.

The vast majority of burials were without coffins, many even without shrouds, suggesting the cemetery was primarily used to serve the poor.

There were very few bodies belonging to women and children – probably because its main purpose was to cater for “poor scholars and other wretched persons” and pregnant women were excluded from its care.

Grave-goods such as jewellery and personal items were only present in a handful of burials.

Dr Cessford added: “Evidence for clothing and grave-goods is rarer than at most hospital cemeteries.

“This is principally because this was a purely lay graveyard with no clerics present.

“Items were found in graves that might represent grave-goods, but their positions were ambiguous and it is equally possible that they represent residual material from earlier activity at the site.”

Originally a small building on a patch of waste ground, the hospital grew with church support to be a noted place of hospitality and care for both university scholars and local people.

Despite local rumours linking the hospital cemetery to the Black Death, no evidence of this disease was found on any of the remains and the team did not find any sign of large burial groups from that period of the 14th century.

In later centuries, plague victims in Cambridge were buried on local grazing land such as Midsummer Common, and it is likely that the same locations were used in the medieval period as well.

Most of the bodies were buried in neatly laid-out rows or deposited in a building on the site.

The team found the cemetery to have six “cemetery generations” – defined as the time taken to fill all available space before burying other bodies in the same locations.

The cemetery was found to have had gravel paths and a water well, along with seeds from various flowering plants, suggesting that much like today’s cemeteries, it was a place for people to come and visit their deceased loved ones.

The bodies surprisingly did not exhibit many serious illnesses and conditions that would have required medical attention.

An Archaeological Journal report on the find suggests that “this could reflect that the main role of the hospital was spiritual and physical care of the poor and infirm rather than medical treatment of the sick and injured”.

Published: Wednesday 1st April 2015 by The News Editor

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