"Poor scholars and wretched persons": Thousands of medieval skeletal remains revealed from Cambridge burial ground

By Culture24 Reporter | 01 April 2015

No infants and lack of young women suggest hospital cemetery refused pregnant burials, focusing on "poor scholars" and "wretched persons"

Skeletons buried in rows at St John's College in Cambridge© University of Cambridge
No evidence of disease or mass burials from the Black Death, the pandemic which swept through Britain between 1348 and 1350 and killed millions across Europe, was detected in a set of more than 400 burials found beneath one of the largest medieval hospital cemeteries, say archaeologists.

Up to 1,000 individuals were excavated at the St John’s College Cambridge’s Old Divinity School during a refurbishment of the Victorian building between 2010 and 2012.

A photo of a skeleton
One of the over 400 13th-15th century bodies buried in the cemetery© University of Cambridge
Releasing images of the well-preserved skeletons for the first time, experts say the scale and extent of the burial ground, which had been known to historians for at least 60 years, had been unclear until they began the work.

Cambridge Archaeological Unit says the cemetery was created during the early 13th century and would have contained the bodies of around 1,300 people, covering six generations in neatly laid-out rows or buried in a charnel house.

A photo of a group of skeletons
The burial ground was used by the Hospital of St John the Evangelist© University of Cambridge
Gravel paths, a water well and the seeds of flowering plants suggest people would have visited their late loved ones at the grounds.

Only a handful of the burials included grave goods such as jewellery, with the vast majority buried without coffins or shrouds, indicating a cemetery for the poor.

A photo of various skeletons in graves
A 13th century gravel path ran between the graves© University of Cambridge
“Evidence for clothing and grave goods was rarer than at most hospital cemeteries”, said Dr Craig Cessford, who led the dig for the Cambridge University Department of Archaeology and Anthropology.

“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.

A photo of an archaeologist in a yellow helmet reaching towards a skeleton in a pit
A member of the Cambridge Archaeological Unit excavating a 14th century skeleton© University of Cambridge
“It is equally possible that they represent residual material from earlier activity at the site.”

Archaeologists were surprised to find no infants and a “relative lack” of the remains of young women at the graveyard, which faced and served the Hospital of St John the Evangelist until 1511.

A photo of archaeologists looking at skeletons in a pit
Bodies beneath the Old Divinity School© University of Cambridge
They believe the hospital’s Augustinian ordinance from 1250, focusing on “poor scholars and other wretched persons” and specifically excluding pregnant women from its care, could account for the age balance of between 25 and 45 years of age.

Plague victims in the area would probably have been buried on local grazing land, according to researchers. Originally merely a small building on a patch of waste ground, the backing of the church allowed the hospital to become a noted place of hospitality and care for academics and local people.

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A photo of a skeleton
The hospital was instituted around 1195 by the townspeople of Cambridge© University of Cambridge
A photo of archaeologists looking at skeletons in a pit
400 individuals were closely analysed© University of Cambridge
A photo of a skeleton in a pit
The bodies did not exhibit many serious illnesses and conditions© University of Cambridge
A photo of archaeologists looking at skeletons in pits
The identifiable remains showed a roughly equal gender balance
A photo of a dark brown crucifix
This 15th century jet crucifix was found buried with an adult male© University of Cambridge
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The long bones of the buried seem not to be bowed suggesting these individuals , from the photos only were of Norman origin and not saxon. See archeological studies of graves pinting to east and being saxon along eanglish coast in Eric reports. Also a film documentary.
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