Archaeologists have discovered one of Britain’s largest medieval hospital cemeteries containing over 1,000 human remains while excavating beneath the Old Divinity School at St John’s College, Cambridge.
The discovery was made during the Victorian building’s refurbishment in 2010-2012, but details were released for the first time on Wednesday. The release includes images from the dig, showing almost perfectly preserved skeletons unearthed after centuries of burial.
The university said that the complete skeletal remains of over 400 medieval burials were uncovered by a team from the Cambridge Archaeological Unit, along with “disarticulated” and fragmentary remains of what could be as many as 1,000 more individuals.
While the existence and location of the cemetery have been known to historians since at least the mid-twentieth century, the sheer scale and extent of the burial ground was unclear until now.
The bodies, which mostly date from a period spanning the 13th to 15th centuries, are burials from the medieval Hospital of St John the Evangelist which stood opposite the graveyard until 1511, and from which St John’s College takes its name.
There is a relative lack of remains of young women and complete absence of infants among skeletons. Of the remains that could be identified, there seems to have been a roughly equal gender balance, with the majority of individuals having died between around 25 and 45 years old.
The lack of young female remains can probably be explained by the Hospital’s Augustinian ordinance from 1250 which established its areas of concern to be “poor scholars and other wretched persons”, and specifically excluded pregnant women from its care.
The university said that the vast majority of burials took place without coffins, many even without shrouds, suggesting the cemetery was primarily used to serve the poor. Grave-goods such as jewellery and personal items were only present in a handful of burials.
Craig Cessford of the Cambridge University Department of Archaeology and Anthropology who led the dig, said: “Evidence for clothing and grave-goods is rarer than at most hospital cemeteries, principally because 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 and it is equally possible that they represent residual material from earlier activity at the site”.