Durham skeletons were pipe-smoking young prisoners of war kept in cathedral after Battle of Dunbar

By Ben Miller | 02 September 2015

Are these the first bodies of Scottish soldiers from the bloody Battle of Dunbar to be found in Durham? Experts reflect on their findings

A photo of the skull and teeth of a skeleton found by archaeologists at Durham Cathedral and believed to date from the Battle of Dunbar
Pipe-smoking wear in the teeth of a young adult male aged between 18-25 found at Durham Cathedral - one of dozens discovered at the site by archaeologists who have now radiocarbon dated them© Richard Rayner / North News and Pictures
Dr Andrew Millard, senior lecturer with Durham University's Department of Archaeology

"Proving a theory in archaeology involves assembling lots of different types of evidence and piecing the jigsaw together so that we can make an informed assessment. When we had the results of the first radiocarbon dating tests we had a very broad date range and were not in a position to draw a definitive conclusion as to the identity of the skeletons, which is why we carried out further tests.

A photo of the skull and teeth of a skeleton in a pit found by archaeologists at Durham Cathedral and believed to date from the Battle of Dunbar
The complex mass of bones shows that bodies were tightly packed into the grave© Richard Annis / Durham University
We undertook isotope analysis to see where they came from which indicated that they came from a wide range of places – most of them not compatible to Durham, but somewhere in Scotland. A small group of them were not compatible with being from the British Isles and that would agree with some of the historical evidence that there were Dutchmen, from northern Europe, in the Scottish army.

A photo of the bones of a skeleton found by archaeologists at Durham Cathedral and believed to date from the Battle of Dunbar
Dr Anwen Caffell, of the university, with some of the remains© Richard Rayner / North News and Pictures
We also undertook dating, and the evidence that they were smoking clay pipes indicates that they were after 1620. They were under a building which appears on a map from 1754. So we’re in a tight time range and within that we had to use careful radiocarbon dating to provide an exact age.

A photo of the skull and teeth of a skeleton found by archaeologists at Durham Cathedral and believed to date from the Battle of Dunbar
© Richard Rayner / North News and Pictures
We dated two teeth from two individuals. With statistical analysis, including all the other information, we were able to come up with an age range of 1625 to 1660. Taking into account the range of detailed scientific evidence we have now, alongside historical evidence from the time, the identification of the bodies as the Scottish soldiers from the Battle of Dunbar is the only plausible explanation."

An overhead photo of skeleton bones found by archaeologists at Durham Cathedral and believed to date from the Battle of Dunbar
© Richard Rayner / North News and Pictures
Richard Annis, senior archaeologist, Archaeological Services Durham University

“The university wanted to create a café and redevelop some of the buildings within Palace Green Library. When the building work started an archaeologist was involved because we’re in the World Heritage Site. She found human bones at this end of the site, where the excavation was deeper.

An overhead photo of skeleton bones found by archaeologists at Durham Cathedral and believed to date from the Battle of Dunbar
© Richard Rayner / North News and Pictures
We looked into it and in quite a small area – little more than a metre square – we found at least 17, possibly as many as 28, people buried in mass graves. This was very, very exciting and we’ve done a lot of work looking at dating and other things that we can try to find out about the identity of these people.

A photo of the skull and teeth of a skeleton found by archaeologists at Durham Cathedral and believed to date from the Battle of Dunbar
© Richard Rayner / North News and Pictures
The really important news is that it is confirmed that these people are from the Battle of Dunbar. These are Scots prisoners who were captured by Cromwell in civil wars, marched south and were imprisoned in Durham. Many of them died of hunger and disease and were buried in mass graves.

A photo of the bones of a skeleton found by archaeologists at Durham Cathedral and believed to date from the Battle of Dunbar
Multiple lines (enamel hypoplasia) in the upper teeth of this young adult male indicate he suffered from poor nutrition and possibly illness during childhood© Jeff Veitch / Durham University
It’s always been known that these people were here but nobody knew where. Now we have certainty about at least some of them. This is an extremely significant find, particularly because it sheds new light on a 365-year old mystery of what happened to the bodies of the soldiers who died.

Their burial was a military operation: the dead bodies were tipped into two pits, possibly over a period of days. They were at the far end of what would have been the Durham Castle  grounds, as far as possible from the Castle itself – they were out of sight, out of mind.

A photo of the teeth of a skeleton found by archaeologists at Durham Cathedral and believed to date from the Battle of Dunbar
© Jeff Veitch / Durham University
It is quite possible that there are more mass graves under what are now university buildings that would have been open ground in the early to mid-17th Century."

A photo of the skull and teeth of a skeleton in a pit found by archaeologists at Durham Cathedral and believed to date from the Battle of Dunbar
© Richard Annis / Durham University
Canon Rosalind Brown, Durham Cathedral

“During the 1640s the cathedral was gradually being denuded of its resources and eventually its clergies. Monies were taken first and then land. In 1646 the bishoprick was abolished and its monies and lands began to be taken. By 1649 the dean and chapter, the people, were dispersed – many of them went to Europe.

A photo of a long bone from a skeleton found by archaeologists at Durham Cathedral and believed to date from the Battle of Dunbar
Part of a 17th century clay pipe similar to those which may have been smoked by the individuals buried at Palace Green. Holding the long stem of such a pipe between the teeth would have left distinctive, smooth crescents of wear in the tooth crowns© Jeff Veitch / Durham University
And so basically it left an empty shell. The buildings began to fall into disrepair but the cathedral itself, being fairly substantial, remained standing. We understand it was used for a stables for some time. But if you’re looking for somewhere to put a lot of people, here was a big building that was certainly not being used for religious worship.

A photo of the skull and teeth of a skeleton found by archaeologists at Durham Cathedral and believed to date from the Battle of Dunbar
Grooves, pits and lines in the lower teeth of this 17-19-year-old, possibly male, indicate that he also suffered from poor nutrition and illness during childhood© Jeff Veitch / Durham University
There is a plaque at Durham Cathedral in commemoration of the Scottish soldiers, which was dedicated in November 2011, on St Andrew’s Day. The discovery of the bodies and the conclusion that they are some of the Scottish soldiers is of great significance.

A photo of the large outdoor Durham Cathedral under a blue sky on a street
Palace Green Library© Durham University / North News
The Cathedral will work closely with all interested parties to determine the most appropriate course of action for the burial of the soldiers in a manner appropriate to their Christian tradition. We are particularly mindful of descendants of the Scottish soldiers and hope and pray that this new information can bring solace."

The Battle of Dunbar

A photo of the bones of a skeleton found by archaeologists at Durham Cathedral and believed to date from the Battle of Dunbar, laid out on a blue table next to boxes
© Richard Rayner / North News and Pictures
  • The conflict was one of the most brutal, bloody and short battles of the 17th Century civil wars.

  • In less than an hour the English Parliamentarian army, under the command of Oliver Cromwell, defeated the Scottish Covenanting army who supported the claims of Charles II to the Scottish throne.

  • Although the exact figures are not known, it is thought that around 1,700 Scottish soldiers died of malnutrition, disease and cold after being marched more than 100 miles from the south east of Scotland to Durham, where they were imprisoned in Durham Cathedral and Castle, by then disused for several years.

  • Experts initially thought most of the evidence was consistent with the bodies being those of the Scottish soldiers but could not draw a firm conclusion from research conducted in 2014 because initial radiocarbon dating analysis indicated a slightly earlier date of death than the Dunbar battle.

  • The battle left anywhere between 300 and 5,000 dead. Modern calculations suggest that an estimated 6,000 Scottish soldiers were taken prisoner with about 1,000 of those who were sick and wounded, then released to go home.

  • About 1,000 of the men are believed to have died en route to Durham from a combination of hunger, exhaustion and gastric problems – probably dysentery. Others were executed, while some escaped.

  • Around 3,000 Scottish soldiers in total were then imprisoned in Durham Cathedral and Castle, at a time when the Cathedral was empty and abandoned, its Dean and Chapter having been evicted and worship suppressed by order of Oliver Cromwell, as was the case with all English Cathedrals at that time.

  • An estimated 1,700 prisoners from the battle died and were buried in Durham and experts say that there are potentially many more burials nearby.

  • The university and cathedral will be working with partners and interested parties to determine what will happen to the remains of the Scottish soldiers, and an "appropriate commemoration". The discussions are likely to include the Church of Scotland, since the prisoners would have been predominantly Scottish Presbyterians

  • Remembrance prayers will be said at Durham Cathedral tomorrow (September 3) - the anniversary of the Battle of Dunbar.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Three museums to learn about civil war history in

National Civil War Centre, Newark

Discover how the people of Newark survived three sieges by dodging cannon fire, hammering flat family silver to make coins, only for plague to ravage the town. Put yourself on the front line, feel the weight of armour and weapons and aim to destroy the Governor’s House as a Parliamentarian gunner.

Corfe Castle, Wareham
Lord Hopton's Regiment of Foote will be demonstrating all aspects of 17th century encampment, including drills and weapon displays, during the living history weekend, Civil War: Besieged and Betrayed. September 26-27 2015.

Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry
Two civil war talks in November will allow visitors to find out about the saying 'Sent to Coventry', with original documents on show and three experts discussing their importance 365 years on. November 6 and 20 2015.
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