English Heritage Open First Purpose-Built Bone Repository In Lincolnshire Church

By Caroline Lewis | 24 May 2007
photo of a church

St Peter's Church, Barton upon Humber. © English Heritage

The so-called most studied parish church in England is to open to the public on Saturday, May 26 2007, following a £600,000 refurbishment. The project has turned the Anglo-Saxon Church of St Peter’s, in Barton-upon-Humber, Lincolnshire, into a fully restored visitor attraction with new facilities and interactive displays.

In addition, the project (led by the South Humber Bank Heritage Tourism Initiative) has paved the way for the return of a collection of 3,000 human burials that were removed for study during excavations between 1978 and 1984.

The remains were removed during investigations into the origins of the church, which was made redundant in 1972, and comprise one of the best-preserved collections recovered from one site in this country. Experts have studied them to find clues about crippling diseases like arthritis, while historians have also gleaned information from them.

photo of a woman silhouetted against a stained glass window, working among large shelves

A curator in the ossuary. © English Heritage

English Heritage will open a new purpose-built ossuary (bone repository) for the remains – the first of its kind in the country. It will mean that the burials, which date back about 1,000 years, are laid to rest on their original consecrated ground, fulfilling a pledge with the Church of England to return them.

The ossuary will also allow researchers to continue to access the bones as part of a pilot project that English Heritage believes will be a model for the excavation, display and storage of remains in other churches.

A rededication ceremony will be held in early 2008. In the meantime, St Peter’s will host an exhibition, Buried Lives, offering a glimpse into the lives and deaths of some of the locals buried in Barton over the last millennium.

photo of a skeleton in an open wooden coffin

This 11th century skeleton has been restored to its rare oak coffin. © English Heritage

“Although for many years St Peter’s has kept a low profile, in reality it is one of the most important historic buildings in England,” said Simon Thurley, Chief Executive of English Heritage.

“Its unique Saxon tower and baptistery and the extraordinarily important burials have helped rewrite the history books. Few places in the UK have such a compelling tale to tell.”

“With great local support, we have restored this beautiful place and created a fascinating new exhibition; it will now be accessible to thousands more people a year. Our agreement with the Church of England to restore the bones to St Peter’s, while permitting continued access to the collection will also make the church an international centre of research.”

photo from above of a man walking across a church interior

The interior of St Peter's has had Victorian pews reinstalled and memorials reinstated. © English Heritage

Nestling in a leafy corner of Barton, St Peter’s has the only surviving Anglo-Saxon baptistery in the UK, and was shown to pre-date the Norman conquest by 19th century scholars.

The exhibition has some incredible skeletons on display, with the earliest, a man over 50 years old, possibly born in the reign of King Canute (1016-1035). The bones have been replaced in their original and exceptionally rare oak coffin. Other skeletons on show date to the 14th and 15th centuries.

“We reveal what changing burial traditions tell us about past societies and highlight how the bones are being used by scientists to uncover secrets about disease and diet,” explained Kevin Booth, English Heritage Senior Curator for the North. “But we also strike a modern note and look at contemporary attitudes to issues surrounding our own mortality.”

photo of a man holding a cup shaped artefact in white gloved hands

Curator Kevin Booth with a 14th century chalice found in the grave of a young priest at St Peter's. © English Heritage

Samples on show reveal that polio was prevalent in Barton, along with many forms of arthritis. However, only six individuals have blade injuries – a little surprising given the violence of early English society. One of these was a man from the 12th or 13th century, whose skull shows signs of a near-fatal knife attack that would have left him with brain damage.

Another indication of what life was like in medieval Barton is that remains of 10-year-olds were on average 18 centimetres shorter than their counterparts today, pointing to poor nutrition. Adults, on the other hand, were as tall as your 21st century grow-up.

Artefacts highlight how burial rites gradually became more elaborate, while finds such as a four-inch Saxon chisel from one burial give clues to its owner’s occupation.

“It is an exciting project that when finished will provide a focal point in Barton,” added Simon Driver, Chief Executive of North Lincolnshire Council, “and will provide visitors with an astonishing wealth of information to help piece together our past.”

Find visitor information for St Peter's on the English Heritage website.