The Missing Mortuary Masses

While the hunt for the missing link in physical anthropology is at the forefront of their studies, we mortuary and bioarchaeologists have our own missing links: mass graves. Throughout the centuries, the world has been ravaged by war and disease, both leaving behind a wake of mass graves and unconventional burials. These mass burials provide the opportunity to look at a different aspect of society and see a community from an alternative perspective than the one traditionally gleaned from cemeteries. It is acknowledged that there is bias in cemeteries, and that inferring population health from the dead communities has its risks (Wood et al. 1992). Mass graves provide a different bias due and therefore provide a different story about the community being researched.

Recently published excavations in York have uncovered ten mass graves, consisting of a total of 113 skeletons. This excavation provides a unique perspective of population health as the graves hold the remains of Oliver Cromwell’s soldiers from the mid 17th century. This conclusion was inferred from a dearth of adult male remains with higher than normal joint and spinal degeneration. Of the 113 individuals only six were females, and overall analysis of the remains showed that the individuals suffered through hard labor. The context, both spatial and temporal, also supports the conclusion that these were soldiers in the 1644 Civil War, likely the Parlimentarians, who were severely defeated by Prince Rupert at Marston Moor, close to York. The evidence for cause of death from disease and not warfare stems from a lack of burial goods, no obvious fatal trauma, and burial of all individuals as a singular event.

Battle at Marston Moor, by J. Barker, from Wikimedia Commons

Soldiers provide a unique perspective of the young and previously healthy men of the community. Enlisting was restricted by specific health constraints, so the men entering the service would have been healthier than the population at large. However, once in the service they were subject to a higher mortality from poor nutrition and increased exp0sure to disease (Sledzik and Sandburg 2002). This finding at York is important in that it can be combined with previously known information on the post-medieval communities and fill in some of our missing links. This provides evidence that lack of adult males in sanctioned cemeteries during the 17th century does not necessarily mean that they were surviving into old adulthood, but rather may be among the mass burials scattered across the English landscape.

As always, it is the findings that challenge our assumptions that aid the most in the growth of the discipline.

Works Cited

Brown, J., 2010. “Grave reveals grim lives of Cromwell’s soldiers”. The Independent, UK. August 20, 2010.

Wood et al., 1992. “The Osteological Paradox”. In Current Anthropology 33:343–370.

Sledzik, P. and Sanburg, L.,2002. “The effects of 19th century military service on health”. In Backbone of History: Health and Disease in the Western Hemisphere, Steckel and Rose, eds. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Excavation: On-Site Archaeology

Analysis of Remains: University of Sheffield

2 responses to “The Missing Mortuary Masses

  1. Fascinating site and articles.

    One small point. The battle of Marston Moor was a major victory for the Parliamentarians not the King. Prince Rupert had to hide in a bean field in order to avoid capture.


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