Canterbury Archeological Trust

Human Bone Studies at St.George's Church
Trevor Anderson


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In 1991 Canterbury Archaeological Trust carried out a six month excavation, in advance of redevelopment, on the site and surrounding area of St George's church. Last year we reported on the ninety-two burials that were uncovered during the first weeks of the excavation. These burials, threatened by the proposed foundations, were located to the north of the church in four small (3 x 1 m.) trenches. As the excavation progressed ninety-three burials were discovered within the church and a further eighty-four skeletons were unearthed from the cemetery to the south-east, bringing the total of burials from the excavation to 269. The archaeological evidence and stratigraphic relationships suggest that medieval and post-medieval inhumations are present.

Photo of coffin All the church burials, including those within vaults, were carefully excavated. Only one sealed lead coffin was encountered. This was reburied unopened and the remains (SK 202) were not examined. The small sample to the south-east was excavated from the uppermost to the lowest levels and all the burials in this part of the cemetery were recovered. The trenches to the north, the areas threatened by the proposed foundations, uncovered only the upper 30 cms of cemetery deposits. Despite the limitations of preservation and the incomplete nature of the sample, the remains have provided a rare opportunity to carry out detailed osteological and palaeopathological analysis of socially disparate post-medieval burials.

At the time of writing (July 1992) all the skeletons have been cleaned; analyzed and, where necessary, photographed. Most of the bones have now been re-interred in Canterbury Cemetery. Various teething troubles with the specially developed computer program has meant that sensible data input has only become possible in the last few weeks. Consequently, detailed analysis of the information is not yet possible. It will not be feasible to study the metric and non-metric data until it has been computerised. The present report discusses the varying degree of bone preservation; the overall demographic picture; as well as the evidence of disease in the sample.

Bone Condition

The overall bone condition and preservation is not very good. In the total sample available for examination, only twenty skeletons (7.5 per cent) are practically complete and over 40 per cent are represented by incomplete limbs, or by small miscellaneous bones. The condition of the bones is mixed: over a quarter are in very good condition, but over halt of the burials consist of badly fragmented or eroded remains, some of which are no more than stains. In comparison to the adult burials, the sub-adult bones (children and juveniles) appear to be slightly better preserved. Almost a third (17/53) are reasonably complete and in 36 per cent the bones are in very good condition.

Apart from the sealed lead coffin (SK 202), only two other burials had well-preserved name plates which were legible (SK 206, 207). It is most unfortunate that both of these skeletons had decomposed to a powdery stain. We were hoping to retrieve a good number of well-preserved skeletons of known age and sex (by name plate) in order to assess the accuracy of current osteological ageing and sexing techniques.

Demography

i) The Overall Sample

Out of a total of 269 skeletons, 209 (77.7 per cent) reached adulthood; seven burials, all within the church, were so badly decomposed that they could neither be assessed as adult or juvenile. Overall, males (n94) and females (n95) are equally represented, with 9.6 per cent (n20) of adult burials unsexed. Only five young adult males were discovered, all in the northern trench; whereas 15.8 per cent (15/95) of females died before they were 30 years old.

Just under one fifth of all burials failed to reach adulthood. Overall, the greatest sub-adult mortality occurs in the juveniles, 15.9 per cent (n19); and least deaths occur during the first year, 11.3 per cent (n6). This is especially evident in the trench sample, in which 55 per cent of the sub-adult burials were juvenile. As we 'have already seen, there is no evidence that child bones are subject to greater decay than are adult remains. Indeed, it appears, that in many cases, child bones are the more solid and better preserved. However, it is possible that many of the very small graves may have been completely cut away by later burials Consequently, those under one year may be under-represented.

ii) The Church Burials

Within the church, both sexes appear to be buried in equal numbers. However, the poorly preserved nature of these burials meant that 18.5 per cent of adults could not be sexed. The incomplete nature of the church skeletons has meant that c 40 per cent of adult church burials could not be aged, except to say they were grown, and a further seven burials were so badly decomposed that they could either be juvenile or adult. As so many church burials could not be aged precisely it is difficult to assess if age has any bearing on burial within the church. However, fewer young adults were buried within the church (4.5 per cent) as opposed to the cemetery and trench (10.6 per cent). There is only slight evidence that a higher percentage of mature adults were being buried within the church (30.3 per cent) than in the graveyard (25.9 per cent).

One point that does emerge clearly is that very few children were buried within the church. Only two juveniles (SK 116;147); two children (SK 127;145) and a foetus (SK 170) were recovered, this represents 5.4 per cent of all church burials. This contrasts strongly with the 33.3 per cent sub-adult mortality in the fully excavated cemetery sample.

Disease

In archaeological remains the most frequently encountered pathological conditions are degenerative joint disease (DJD) [formerly known as osteoarthritis]; infection and trauma. The prevalence of these conditions within the church and cemetery was examined separately to assess if there was any difference between patterns of disease and burial location. Within the church sixty-five sexed adult burials were available for examination. The trench to the north contained seventy-one sexed adults and a further fifty-two sexed adults were unearthed from the cemetery sample to the east. In all three samples the most frequently encountered pathological condition was primary degenerative joint disease. The most frequent site is the spine, some c. 56 per cent of all sexed adults were suffering from vertebral joint degeneration. There is evidence that, in both church and cemetery, spinal degeneration was more frequent in females (65 per cent) than in males. Vertebral degeneration was slightly more frequent (60 per cent) in the cemetery than in the church (50 per cent). There was less evidence of trauma and infection amongst the church burials than in the skeletons from the cemetery.

At the time of writing, the information concerning pathological conditions; stature; oral health, as well as the metric analysis and non-metric traits, have not been computerised. Once this task is completed, it will be possible, for the first time, to build up a comprehensive picture of life for a cross section of a post- medieval urban community. In addition, unusual discoveries made on particular skeletons will be the subject of more detailed publications. These include: a compound denticular odontome and a probable case of Paget's disease.

Excavations at St. George's clocktower
A lengthy report on the excavation highlighting the history of the site.

See this place today Click on the logo to see this place today.   The information on this page is Copyright © Canterbury Archaeological Trust Ltd. 1992 Reproduced with permission.
The text and pictures were taken from Canterbury's Archaeology 1991/1992, The 16th Annual Report of Canterbury Archaeological Trust Ltd.


Peter Collinson Last change: 7th September 2008