Hundreds of Skeletons Uncovered During Westminster Abbey Excavation
The decomposed body parts of hundreds of medieval monks have been uncovered on the grounds of Westminster Abbey in London, during the excavation of the long-lost Great Sacristy of Westminster Abbey built by Henry III. Usually located inside churches or within an annex, a sacristy is a room used by monks for storing church vestments, sacred vessels used during mass and parish records. Researchers in London have discovered a lost 13th-century sacristy, along with thousands of buried bodies. Archaeologist Chris Mayo told The Guardian “there are burials everywhere” surrounding the foundations of the Great Sacristy on the Abbey’s North Green built by King Henry III in the 1250s.
Section of painting of Westminster Abbey by Pietro Fabris, which depicts the Great Sacristy at its center. (Image: Westminster Abbey )
England’s Chief Coronation Station
Westminster Abbey , formally the Collegiate Church of Saint Peter at Westminster, is a large predominantly Gothic abbey located to the west of the Palace of Westminster, in the City of Westminster, London. The Abbey has served as the coronation church of British monarchs since 1066 AD and is also the final resting place of seventeen monarchs. The church we currently see was constructed by Henry III in 1245 AD, and was created to emulate the great Gothic churches and cathedrals then being built in France. As such, it represents one of the most important Gothic buildings in the United Kingdom.
The reason this important sacristy was lost in time is because it was converted into a domestic dwelling, which in 1740 was deemed unsafe and was demolished. It was uncovered again in 1869 by the Abbey ’s Surveyor of the Fabric, the celebrated English architect Gilbert Scott . Since January this year, a team of archaeologists from Pre-Construct Archaeology have been excavating the site ahead of the creation of new ticketing and security facilities that will allow visitors to enter through the grand Great West Door, which was the the traditional entrance of British monarchs and their brides.
Pre-Construct Archaeology have been excavating the Great Sacristy site at Westminster Abbey before the construction of new ticketing and security facilities. (Image: Westminster Abbey )
Storehouse of Medieval Treasure? Ancient Artifacts of the Sacred Cell
In 2010, the Channel 4 archaeology television show Time Team conducted a dig at Westminster Abbey looking for the lost medieval sacristy of Henry III. They described it as “the grandest” of all buildings built by Henry III in 13th-century England and at that time it was suspected to house “the many treasures of the Abbey.” However, its location was a mystery and what the archaeologists actually found in 2010 was at a best a vestry, though many critics thought it was just a plain old corridor.
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Contrary to the belief that this historically important building contained a storehouse of medieval treasures the discoveries have been thin on the ground. Among the artifacts that have been recovered by Pre-Construct Archaeology is a “stoup,” or basin, most probably used by monks to wash their hands as they entered the holy building, and a lead water pipe dating from the 13th century.
An impressive medieval sarcophagus was also discovered that the researchers believed might have held the human remains of someone in charge of the Great Sacristy, but the individual had been taken out and his sarcophagus and his burial box had been “re-used as a drain.” They also found a “stacked grave” which at one point they thought could have belonged of the “regicides” involved in the execution of Charles I, the bodies of whom who Charles II ordered to be taken from the abbey and thrown in a pit. “Unfortunately the dates meant that was not possible,” explains The Guardian .
Untapped Historical Database of Dead Monks
Perhaps the most revealing discovery was made after thousands of fragments of painted wall plaster were analyzed, which allowed the archaeologists to conclude that the Great Sacristy boasted “hand-painted red, white and black flowers.” But, according to Mayo, what stands out at this dig, above all the other discoveries, are the “hundreds, if not thousands” of skeletons discovered across the Abbey site.
It is now known that the site of the Great Sacristy of Henry III had been used as a burial ground for monks. Mayo explains that one such skeleton which has been partially uncovered by the archaeologists “still remains in extraordinary condition.” This is whetting the appetites of the excavators as it is expected that thousands of bodies were buried here. So, while no gold and silver has been found, over time these monks will share valuable archaeological data about the diets, diseases and lifestyles of monks in medieval England.
Top image: One of the most exciting discoveries made during the excavation of the Great Sacristy at Westminster Abbey is the skeleton of a monk in “extraordinary condition”, which could hold valuable archaeological data. Source: Westminster Abbey
By Ashley Cowie