Dark Age skeletons found at Cornish chapel were early Christian children and women who could have been from same family

| 20 August 2015

James Gossip, of the Cornwall Archaeological Unit, on the results of radiocarbon dating on skeletons found at an iconic Cornwall church

A photo of an archaeologist standing within the stone walls of St Piran's in Cornwall
© James Gossip / Cornwall Archaeological Unit
“The clearance of sand during the recent re-excavation of St Piranʼs uncovered the remains of several skeletons to the north-west of the oratory, buried approximately 24 inches below ground surface. The exposure of skeletons has been documented at St Piran’s many times, with rows of skeletons being recorded in 1820, 1835 and 1905.

A photo of an archaeologist digging up a skeleton in the grounds of St Piran's in Cornwall
© James Gossip / Cornwall Archaeological Unit
In 1910, during the construction of the protective shell, the skeleton of a probable female was revealed, apparently holding a child in her arms. More bones were noted by visitors to the site throughout the 20th century, and in 1980 12 cist graves were revealed 10 to 13 metres away from the oratory.

A photo of an archaeologist digging up skeletons within the church of St Piran's in Cornwall
© James Gossip / Cornwall Archaeological Unit
In order to create a safe working environment for the team excavating the oratory, it was necessary to record and excavate 12 skeletons, buried approximately 0.6 metres below ground surface. The bones were carefully recorded in situ in accordance with guidelines set out by the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists and under licence from the Ministry of Justice.

A photo of two archaeologists digging up a skeleton at St Piran's in Cornwall
© James Gossip / Cornwall Archaeological Unit
With one exception, the burials were all aligned east-west in the Christian tradition, with their limbs extended and their heads at the western end of the grave. Unusually, one had been buried in a flexed position on an almost north-south alignment, the reasons for which are uncertain.

A photo of an archaeologist digging up a skeleton at St Piran's in Cornwall
© James Gossip / Cornwall Archaeological Unit
Some of the graves had been marked with upright stones at the head and feet and the bodies are likely to have been wrapped in shrouds before being placed in grave pits dug into the sand. The bagged and labelled bones were transferred to the lab, where they were cleaned and analysed by osteoarchaeologist Richard Mikulski.

A photo of archaeologists digging up skeletons within St Piran's in Cornwall
© James Gossip / Cornwall Archaeological Unit
Samples from two burials were then selected for radiocarbon dating and sent to the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre. Of the 12 individuals, only two were adults - both female - with one aged at least 45 and the other probably aged 20-25.

A photo of archaeologists digging up skeletons within St Piran's in Cornwall
© James Gossip / Cornwall Archaeological Unit
The children were aged one to five, with one early post neonatal child aged between one and six months. The bones of two skeletons exhibited familial traits and appeared to have been buried together, suggesting a close relationship. The skeleton of the child buried in a flexed position produced a date suggesting burial during the 8th or 9th centuries AD.

A photo of archaeologists digging up skeletons within St Piran's in Cornwall
© James Gossip / Cornwall Archaeological Unit
The other child appears to have been buried around the same time, but more probably in the 9th century AD. These results are very important as they strongly suggest the existence of a place of Christian worship at this time. It is thought likely that the surviving oratory building is of Norman date - 11th or 12th century.

A photo of archaeologists digging up skeletons within St Piran's in Cornwall
© James Gossip / Cornwall Archaeological Unit
If this is the case then these burials relate to an earlier structure, the presence of which has long been suspected. The dates also suggest the development of the dune system earlier than previously thought, and it is likely that the building was constructed within a terrace in an already existing dune.

A photo of archaeologists standing within the stone walls of St Piran's in Cornwall
© James Gossip / Cornwall Archaeological Unit
It is possible that these burials form part of a sequence and that earlier burials are present cut into the sands beneath. Due to the scarcity of religious structures scientifically dated to the early medieval period, these findings are of national significance and help to confirm the early medieval origins of a religious centre at the oratory site.

Watch a time-lapse video of the dig



On completion of our analysis the bones will be re-interred at the site with due care and respect.

A photo of archaeologists standing within the stone walls of St Piran's in Cornwall
© James Gossip / Cornwall Archaeological Unit
We hope that further archaeological work and detailed analysis of the skeletal material, including excavations which may reveal earlier burials, can be used to provide information on origins, migration and diet.

It will add significantly to our knowledge of the early origins of this iconic site and the development of the early church in Cornwall.”

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Three museums to discover the history of Cornwall in

Bodmin Town Museum
Rocks and minerals, showcases from the world wars, a model forge, agricultural implements, a Cornish Victorian kitchen, Bardic items, wildlife and railway artefacts and medieval church exhibits feature at this museum.

Liskeard and District Museum
From a civil war helmet, to an architect’s spirit level and a photographic studio, the displays here cover local history from Mesolithic settlers to the 19th century.

Pendennis Castle
Throughout its 450-year history, Pendennis Castle has faced new enemies, right up to the Second World War. See a Tudor gun deck in action and experience the sights and sounds of battle in the interactive exhibition at the Royal Artillery Barracks.
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