The recently unearthed medieval priest’s skull and coffin lid.

Latest Thornton Abbey Discovery: Did the Great Famine take a Medieval Priest and Leave an Elaborate Grave?

(Read the article on one page)

The remains of a Medieval priest who died 700 years ago has been uncovered at Thornton Abbey in Lincolnshire. Research shows he could have been a victim of the Great Famine.

Archaeologists from the University of Sheffield uncovered the rare find at Thornton Abbey in Lincolnshire, which was founded as a monastery in 1139 and went onto become one of the richest religious houses in England.

The priest's gravestone was discovered close to the altar of a former hospital chapel. Unusually for the period, it displayed an inscription of the deceased's name, Richard de W'Peton -- abbreviated from 'Wispeton', a medieval incarnation of modern Wispington in Lincolnshire -- and his date of death, 17 April 1317.

The slab also contained an extract from the Bible, specifically Philippians 2:10, which reads; "that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth."

The coffin lid for the Medieval priest Richard de W'Peton.

The coffin lid for the Medieval priest Richard de W'Peton. ( University of Sheffield )

The discovery of Richard's grave was made by University of Sheffield PhD student Emma Hook, who found his skeletal remains surrounded by the decayed fragments of a wooden coffin.

"After taking Richard's skeleton back to the laboratory, despite poor preservation, we were able to establish Richard was around 35-45 years-old at the time of his death and that he had stood around 5ft 4ins tall," said Emma.

"Although he ended his days in the priesthood, there is also some suggestion that he might have had humbler origins in more worldly work; his bones show the marks of robust muscle attachments, indicating that strenuous physical labour had been a regular part of his life at some stage. Nor had his childhood been easy; his teeth show distinctive lines known as dental enamel hypoplasia, indicating that his early years had been marked by a period of malnutrition or illness."

The medieval priest’s bones.

The medieval priest’s bones. ( University of Sheffield )

In order to further investigate Richard's health, researchers in the Department of Archaeology produced a 3D scan of his skull. The model produced enables detailed features of the skull to be seen with much more ease than with the naked eye.

This revealed a potentially violent episode in the priest's past: a slight depression in the back of his skull shows evidence of an extremely well-healed blunt force trauma suffered many years before Richard's death.

The 3d image of Richard's skull.

The 3d image of Richard's skull. ( University of Sheffield )

None of the investigations shed light on the cause of his demise at a relatively young age, however there is one possibility that researchers are exploring.

Dr. Hugh Willmott from the University of Sheffield's Department of Archaeology, who has been working on the excavation site at Thornton Abbey since 2011, said: "2017 marks not only the 700th anniversary of Richard's death, but also that of a catastrophic event that is now largely forgotten, but caused years of suffering for the whole of Europe: The Great Famine of 1315-1317.

"Triggered by a whole spring and summer of relentlessly heavy rain that caused widespread crop failures -- which vastly depleted the availability of grain for humans and hay or straw for animals -- this was a period of mass starvation. Although not on the same scale as the Black Death, which devastated Europe from 1346-1353 and which also left its mark at Thornton Abbey, these hungry times struck rich and poor alike, killing millions across the continent."

Ruins of Thornton Abbey, Lincolnshire.

Ruins of Thornton Abbey, Lincolnshire. (David Wright/ CC BY SA 2.0 )

He added: "By spring 1317, when Richard died, the crisis was at its peak and its events would undoubtedly have affected medieval hospitals like Thornton Abbey, and the priests who served there.

"These institutions traditionally cared for the poor and hungry as well as the sick, so during the Great Famine sites like Thornton would have found themselves on the front line. Richard would have ministered to the starving, working in the face of desperately limited resources -- and perhaps despite these efforts, he too succumbed to the natural disaster that was unfolding around him. For now, such a narrative can only be a matter of speculation, but it does seem clear that -- whatever caused his death -- at the end of his days Richard was held in high regard, afforded an elaborate burial in the most prestigious part of the hospital chapel, in the very place he would have spent his final years working among the poor and dying."

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Top New Stories

Denisova cave, some 150 km (93 mi) south of the city of Barnaul, is the only source of Denisovan's remains. Pictures: The Siberian Times
The distance from the only currently known home of the Denisovans in Altai region to the nearest point of Australia is roughly akin to the length of the Trans-Siberian railway, and yet it is looking increasingly likely that these ancient species of humanoids somehow made this epic journey deep in pre-history, perhaps 65,000 years ago.

Myths & Legends

A vase-scene from about 410 BC. Nimrod/Herakles, wearing his fearsome lion skin headdress, spins Noah/Nereus around and looks him straight in the eye. Noah gets the message and grimaces, grasping his scepter, a symbol of his rule - soon to be displaced in the post-Flood world by Nimrod/Herakles, whose visage reveals a stern smirk.
The Book of Genesis describes human history. Ancient Greek religious art depicts human history. While their viewpoints are opposite, the recounted events and characters match each other in convincing detail. This brief article focuses on how Greek religious art portrayed Noah, and how it portrayed Nimrod in his successful rebellion against Noah’s authority.

Human Origins

Sumerian creation myth
Sumer , or the ‘land of civilized kings’, flourished in Mesopotamia, now modern-day Iraq, around 4500 BC. Sumerians created an advanced civilization with its own system of elaborate language and...

Ancient Technology

The School of Athens
Much of modern science was known in ancient times. Robots and computers were a reality long before the 1940´s. The early Bronze Age inhabitants of the Levant used computers in stone, the Greeks in the 2nd century BC invented an analogue computer known as the Antikythera mechanism. An ancient Hindu book gives detailed instructions for the construction of an aircraft –ages before the Wright brothers. Where did such knowledge come from?

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article