Highway Project Unearths Post-Medieval Burial Ground in England
Twelve months after a massive archaeological dig at the Trinity Burial Ground that forms part of a £355 million Highways England improvement and redevelopment project started in Hull in northern England, the burial ground project is drawing to a close. The rich haul of material excavated from the post-medieval burial ground in Hull provides a fascinating peek into life in the 18th and 19th centuries in the port town. The excavations were carried out by Balfour Beatty, Oxford Archaeology, Humber Field Archaeology, Hull City Council, Historic England, and Hull Minster.
Project Manager Stephen Rowland told Hull Daily Mail that the graveyard was consecrated in 1785 as an emergency measure as space in the Holy Trinity Church burial ground in Hull’s Old Town began running out. This was the result of a population expansion driven by increasing commercial and industrial activity in Georgian and Victorian England. The Trinity Burial Ground was used until 1861 and in that time the parish register recorded 43,000 burials.
Rowland told the newspaper, "Although it is known that some of those people were interred in the original medieval cemetery located immediately around the church, the majority are thought to lie within Trinity Burial Ground on Castle Street.” Rowland said the team’s work had uncovered a wealth of details about the population of the city as it expanded rapidly in the 18th century.
The extensive dig at the Trinity Burial Ground in Hull, England. ( Highways England )
The Wide Range of Trinity Burial Ground Finds
A total of 9,500 bodies along with their grave goods have been carefully exhumed at the cemetery site . After a detailed offsite analysis has been carried out, the dead will be reburied in a part of the cemetery that is unaffected by the road improvement work. Oxford Archaeology reports that while preliminary investigations began in 2015, actual excavation work started in 2020. The 90-member dig team will complete its onsite work in 2021.
Stephen Rowland shared many interesting details of the finds with Hull Daily Mail that furnish information about Hull’s 18th and 19th-century residents across the social spectrum. The team found the most orderly burials, those of the more well-to-do, in several rows close to a path coming from the main entrance. These mostly had fancy and well-decorated coffins within brick tombs of varying sizes.
Most intriguingly some of the coffins were secured with devices that have been identified as “mort safes,” installed to prevent body snatching , a common practice of the time! While most of these were simple iron straps around the coffin, in one instance a coffin was encased in a complete iron cage. Rowland said that while such structures had been found in other parts of England, they had hardly ever been seen in the northern part of the country.
The dig has revealed several artifacts along with the human remains. Most of these consist of copper-alloy pins to secure shrouds, coffin linings, clothing and hair. There were also dress fittings and ornaments such as buttons, hair combs, pieces of jewellery, and Dutch coins. In addition, there were some unusual items such as a conch shell that could have been a souvenir of overseas travel. Several plate burials were also found where individuals were buried with a ceramic plate. These plates may have once held salt, a symbol of eternal life for the dead.
The burial ground also yielded coffins secured with devices that have been identified as "mort safes," installed to prevent body snatching. While most of these were simple iron straps around the coffin, in this instance the coffin was encased in a complete iron cage. ( Highways England )
How Did They Die?
While a more detailed investigation is required to disclose disease and mortality patterns, preliminary observations of the human remains exhumed at the Trinity Burial Ground have shown a high prevalence of deficiency diseases such as scurvy and rickets.
The skeletal remains also show an unusual number of nasal fractures in adults.
Poor dental health and the presence of diseases such as tuberculosis and syphilis are discernible as well.
There were also signs of surgical procedures such as healed amputations and even a healed hole that had been drilled into a skull.
Other evidence indicated autopsy procedures such as craniotomies and extensive post-mortem cuts on bones to indicate that some of the bodies buried in the ground were probably cadavers used for teaching.
Even for field archaeologists digging day in day out, striking gold is an extremely rare occurrence! This gold third guinea, issued in 1804 during the reign of King George III, was found in loose soil at the site and not associated with a burial. This coin was produced exclusively between 1797 and 1813. ( Highways England )
BBC News has reported that one of the 9500 bodies exhumed could be that of a victim of Hull’s worst dockland disaster in 1837 when 23 people were killed in an explosion aboard the steam-powered Union which was meant to depart from Hull for Gainsborough on 7 June.
A third of the disaster’s victims are believed to have been buried at the Trinity Burial Ground and signs of horrific injury found on one particular skeleton seem to point to it being that of a victim of the disaster.
An 18th century jail, a World War II bomb site and traces of a medieval settlement are some of the other finds at the site that will, over time, paint a clearer picture of the burial ground over the years.
Top Image: This substantially complete clay pipe bowl was found in the topsoil of the Trinity Burial Ground. The headdress and mustachios would suggest that this represented a Turk's head, a popular design in the later 19th and early 20th century. Source: Highways England
By Sahir Pandey
BBC News. 2021. Hull A63 Castle Street dig: Remains of 1837 dockland disaster victim uncovered . Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-humber-58201891.
Oxford Archaeology website. 2021. Archaeological excavations underway at burial site next to the A63 in Hull. Available at: https://oxfordarchaeology.com/news/924-archaeological-excavations-underway-at-burial-site-next-to-the-a63-in-hull.
Young, Angus. 2021. The fascinating finds at Hull's biggest ever archaeological dig - including remains of nearly 10,000 people . Available at: https://www.hulldailymail.co.uk/news/hull-east-yorkshire-news/fascinating-finds-hulls-biggest-ever-5964088?utm_source=linkCopy&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=sharebar.