Canterbury Archeological Trust

Human Bone Studies in Canterbury Cathedral
Trevor Anderson

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During the early months of 1992, small scale excavation was undertaken within Canterbury Cathedral. In eighteen (12.7 per cent) of the layers. disarticulated human bones were discovered, the majority (61 per cent) in association with animal bones. A total of 189 human bones were identified. Most of the layers contained a few fragmented bones, only three layers containing more than a dozen.

For the most part the remains were too incomplete to age or sex with any accuracy. However three children were identified, one 3-4 years old, one about 5 years old and a third only about 0-6 months. Two adult males were found elsewhere, though only their lower legs and feet survived. Based on the length of their tibiae (shinbones), it was possible to calculate their stature; 1.68 m. 5 ft 6½ ins) and 1.67 m. (5 ft 6¼ ins).

Only three cases of bone pathology were discovered in the fragmented remains. There were two cases of spinal degeneration and one example of trauma, a broken hand bone that had healed.

During the 1993 excavation of the nave, the intact vaults were not disturbed and only disarticulated human bone fragments were recovered from five layers. The uncleaned bones were examined on site and were then carefully reburied within the Cathedral. A total of twenty-seven people were represented. Three bones of a c. 8-10 year old child were recovered. From the twenty-six adults, eleven were identified as male, seven as female and the remainder could not be sexed.

The rapid examination of the uncleaned bones revealed little evidence of obvious disease. Arthritic degeneration of the spine and dental caries were noted in two individuals. A benign bone overgrowth was noted below the knee in an adult male. The only evidence of trauma occurred in a probable male, aged 20-25 years. Two of his upper left teeth had been knocked out during life. The marked loss of alveolar bone in such a young person argues for traumatic loss rather than extraction. No obvious evidence of infection was discovered in the sample. One adult male displayed dental wear diagnostic of clay pipe smoking, thus dating this individual to the post-medieval period.

One individual was practically complete. It appears that his grave must have been disturbed, presumably by the digging of a new grave, and all his bones were gathered up and reburied (Pl. IL). The remains were those of a middle-aged or elderly male. The bones suggest a robust, well-muscled, but rather stocky (5 ft 7 ins) individual, the only evidence of disease being spinal degeneration and dental caries.

An articulated skeleton was discovered in the south-west transept. The remains were cleaned but were not exhumed. The burial was Iying prone with arms and legs extended, both forearms in pronation with the hands palm down, the left arm slightly pulled in. The remains were well-preserved, although the skull was badly crushed and the front of the lower vertebrae were eroded.

A rapid in situ examination suggested that the individual was male. Fusion of the epiphyses confirms that he was fully-grown. It is difficult to assign a more precise age, since cranial suture closure as well as the right side of the jaw could not be seen and the pubic bones were absent. All molars on the left side had been lost during life and the jawbone had begun to heal. The front teeth, however, were only lightly worn.

Measurement of the skeleton in situ suggests a stature of c. 1.70 m. (5 ft 7 ins). A similar figure, 1.7 m. (5 ft 7½ ins), was calculated from the maximum length of the long bones. There was no evidence of pathology on the available bones and it was not possible to ascertain cause of death.

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The text and pictures were taken from Canterbury's Archaeology 1992/1993, The 17th Annual Report of Canterbury Archaeological Trust Ltd.

Peter Collinson Last change: 18th November 2018