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A Head Start In Life

Dave Godden

Maidstone, United Kingdom

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St Leonards Church, Hythe.

134 views as of 10/12/10

Among the numerous skulls displayed in the ossuary here is this one which, whilst damaged after death, found a re-use by a Robin to build its nest some years ago. The church left the Robin be and its young were successfully raised and moved on. The nest has been left as a display piece.

There are some 2000 skulls in the Bonehouse of St Leonard’s Church, mainly arranged on shelves so you can get a good look at them – like the faces of the living they have their own characteristics and expressions. A few are of special interest as showing medical and dental conditions; there is even an example of trepanning. There are also about 8000 long bones – mainly thigh-bones – in a rather nicely designed pile. So that represents the remains of about 4000 people (men, women and children) – obviously the skulls being more fragile have not survived in such numbers. We do make a small charge to visitors: our bonehouse has been a nice little earner for the church since medieval times. Some people think it is wrong to put them on show, but they are reverently treated, they remain on consecrated ground, and they are contributing to their church even as they did in life. They are also of scientific importance, and it would be a pity to deny access to them.

So WHO were these people, WHY are they here instead of being buried as normal, and WHEN were they placed here? There has been a lot of argument about the answers to these questions among scientists. It was long believed they were foreign soldiers killed in a great battle (why the woman and children then, and would not there be signs of wounds?). Another theory was that they were the victims of the Black Death (though these were usually hastily disposed of in quicklime). But there is now a general consensus that they were citizens of Hythe who died over a long span of years, were buried in the churchyard (many of the skulls were found to contain soil), then dug up in the 13th Century when the church was extended eastwards over their graves by the addition of the great chancel. Later, other bones disturbed when new graves were dug may have been added to the pile, and some may even have been brought in from other churchyards in Hythe when these fell out of use and were disposed of.

The ambitious plan to add the prestigious chancel in the 13th century created a problem: the priests wished to continue to process round the outside of the church on certain special days bearing in solemn procession a Holy Relic of St Leonard. (We do not know what it was.) This must not leave sacred ground; yet the pathway round the church would be covered by the new building. So they raised the chancel floor level (hence the steps up to the altar inside) and made a corridor beneath, with a door at each end through which the processions could pass. When in the 14th century the entrance porch was added to the church, it too was designed with a door at each side for the same reason. The vaulted corridor beneath the new high altar was the perfect place for the displaced bones of their ancestors (though we have to suppose they were sufficiently tidily stacked to allow the processions room to move through). There may have been another, mercenary motive also: Archbishop Becket had been murdered in 1170 in Canterbury Cathedral – by 1200 the pilgrims were visiting his shrine there in great numbers, and many were landing at Hythe (the shortest sea-crossing from France). Of course they would pause in this church to give thanks for a safe crossing, and, if it could show them ‘a wonder’ (such as a pile of skulls and bones?) they would be all the more likely to donate a groat or two. Indeed the church became so rich as to excite the jealousy of the neighbouring church in Saltwood, which demanded Hythe hand over their relic to them!

Since there were only 20 or 30 burials a year in medieval times, and not all of them in the area of the new chancel, it must have taken perhaps 200 years or more to accumulate this number of bones, so some of these remains belonged to people who lived in the first millennium, and who had been buried for many years already before being moved. The femurs show that the average height of a male was around 1.65m, and of a female only 1.55m. There are a lot of teeth (dentists love visiting here!), and you will see that, although worn down by rough food, they show few signs of decay, a benefit of a sugar-free diet.

There is one unique characteristic of the skulls in the Bonehouse. It is possible by making certain measurements to determine what is called the ‘cephalic index’ of a skull; this can be an indicator of race. It appears that a significant number of our skulls show an unusually high index, not typical of the English norm, and that this may indicate a link with the Romans or the mercenaries, merchants and auxiliaries stationed in the area during the Roman occupation. These foreigners were in this coastal area for hundreds of years; many settled here; there was interbreeding; it is likely that traces of their genes lingered on, although by the 1930s when anthropologists measured the skulls of children of long-established Hythe families, the index conformed to the English norm so the foreign influence had died out. If funding can be found, modern carbon-dating techniques and DNA analysis may tell much more.

The Bournemouth University Department of Conservation Sciences has embarked recently on a project to enhance the conservation and knowledge of the collection of skulls and human bones in the crypt.

The work so far has involved cleaning of the skulls on one rack of shelves with soft brushes, analysis by Bournemouth University staff of a small group of skulls and other bones from the crypt, and provision of new laminated information sheets on what this analysis tells us about distinguishing features on the specimens in relation to evidence of disease or blows to the skull or body.

In addition to the main project, a study is being conducted by a Bournemouth University postgraduate, with local Hythe connections and who is undertaking a Master’s Degree, to determine the evidence of a disease that shows up around the eye sockets. The initial investigation has provided evidence of this feature in at least 40% of a sample of 250 skulls, and it is hoped that the study may provide clues to the health problems, and possibly diet, of the people concerned.Both the main and the individual projects will add to our knowledge about the people whose skulls and bones are in the crypt and provide increased interest and information to all those visiting the crypt in the future.

Text taken from the home website of St Leonards Church, Hythe.

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