"These are men who fought and died together": Dismembered soldiers found in mass grave to be reburied in Durham

By Ben Miller | 24 August 2016

The soldiers discovered beneath Durham University will be buried near their mass grave following consultations on the moral, ethical and legal issues involved

A photo of a series of bones from scottish soldiers found at durham university
© North News & Pictures ltd
The separated remains of thousands of soldiers killed at the Battle of Dunbar, one of the shortest and most brutal battles of the 17th century civil war, will be reburied in Durham, the leaders of a public consultation on the remains have announced.

Elvet Hill Road Cemetery, near the World Heritage Site where the bodies were discovered in a mass grave during construction work at Durham University’s Palace Green Library café in November 2013, will become the final resting place for the soldiers discovered to date.

Archaeologists say it is “very possible” that more bones belonging to the 1,700 prisoners of war from the battle could remain under buildings on Palace Green.



The university, which has applied to the Ministry of Justice for a later exhumation timescale, expects to complete its research on the soldiers by the end of 2017, retaining a small sample of teeth to be examined when new techniques become available.

The army of captives was marched more than 100 miles, from the south-east of Scotland to Durham, in the aftermath of the 1650 battle.

Around 3,000 were imprisoned in the city’s castle and its empty abandoned cathedral, with survivors later transported to become indentured servants in Virginia, New England and other parts of the world.

A photo of a series of bones from scottish soldiers found at durham university
Dr Anwen Caffell takes a look at some of the remains© North News & Pictures ltd
A series of meetings and events in Dunbar and Durham saw some calls for the bodies to return to Scotland on moral grounds. But Professor Chris Gerrard, the leader of the project team at the university, says sending the soldiers on a return journey would present “challenges”.

“We have to bear in mind that these remains are all extremely fragile – and, crucially, none of them are complete,” he points out.

“Our research is clear that not all of the individuals were from the United Kingdom, and several more may be from either Scotland or northern England. Home was perhaps not Scotland for all of these men.



“We felt that we should try to limit the distance, wherever possible, between the human remains that have already been moved and those which are still in situ.

“We are left with a situation in which different parts of the skeletons have been retrieved from the archaeological site and others are still left under the buildings on Palace Green.

“We feel that the human remains should be interred as close as possible to their comrades. These are men who fought together and died together. To separate them in death would be insensitive.”

A photo of a series of bones from scottish soldiers found at durham university
Photographic imaging of the remains developed by the university's Department of Archaeology© North News & Pictures ltd
A plaque in the Chapel of Nine Altars at the cathedral, stating that the burial place of the soldiers is unknown, will be corrected and rededicated.

A new commemorative plaque, which could be cut from Dunbar stone, is under consideration for the cemetery, and Scottish soil could be added to the graves if some of the suggestions from the consultation are followed.

“Reburial in Durham is in accordance with English law and it reflects the standard approach set out by the Ministry of Justice license,” says Professor Gerrard, calling the level of interest in the discoveries “hugely rewarding”.



“It also conforms with best archaeological practice. It was clear from the consultation process that the public felt that there was a need to ensure these individuals were provided with a respectful and dignified burial.

“We feel comfortable that reburial in Durham, with an appropriate grave marker and a ceremony, offers these two things.”

The university’s Department of Archaeology hopes to use further research to draw conclusions about the origins of the soldiers and their health during their lifetimes.


What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Three places to see archaeology in the north-east

Oriental Museum, Durham University
The Oriental Museum is the only museum in the North of Britain devoted solely to the art and archaeology of the Orient. The remarkable collections reveal the great cultures of Asia; the Near and Middle East; and North Africa.

Arbeia Roman Fort and Museum, South Shields
Four miles east of the end of Hadrian's Wall at South Shields, Arbeia Roman Fort played an essential role in the mighty frontier system. Originally built to house a garrison, Arbeia soon became the military supply base for the 17 forts along the Wall.

Great North Museum Hancock, Newcastle & Gateshead
The Great North Museum incorporates collections from the Hancock Museum and Newcastle University’s Museum of Antiquities, the Shefton Museum and the Hatton Gallery.
Latest comment: >Make a comment
Durham Cathedral could hardly be scoring brownie points because they will not allow the remains to be re-buried inside their Monument. A local graveyard will have to do.
If, as my research into Refeeding Syndrome suggests, the English did attempt to care for the Prisoners, the stain on the Cathedral is no longer.
To sent the remains Home to Scotland would be to send them to a Country which has failed for 365 years to honour these men's fallen fellows.
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