A building crew was working on St. Tugel’s Chapel and found a number of human skeletal remains during this past month. The site is located on the island of Herm found in the English Channel, and is a popular tourist location. The builders alerted archaeologists, and further survey of the area around the church has uncovered more bones underneath the lawn. There is currently a minimum number of 24 individuals found at the site and are thought to be a least a few hundred years old. The financial director of the island, Andrew Bailey, said “We were quite suprised. We had a phone call, ‘We’ve found some bodies in the garden’ and then we thought ‘Oh no, what are they referring to?’ And then they elaborated a bit more and we found out it was actually a skeleton or the remains of something down there. So it was very exciting, very interesting” (Guernsey News 2011).
The Chapel of St. Tugel’s was erected in the 11th century when the island served as a sanctuary for Norman monks. However, historical sources may point to an earlier construction in the 6th century (BBC 2010). The skeletons found at the island are thought to be the remains of monks from the Medieval period. They were buried in an ordered fashion, extended and laid out with arms crossed over their midsections. They are also buried in the traditional Christian fashion, east to west to face the rising sun. At the moment there is no evidence of coffins, but body position may suggest that they were buried in shrouds (Guernsey 2011).
The burial type fits with other medieval Christian burials from this region. According to Anderson (2007) of Spoilheap, Medieval Christian burials consisted of simple shroud burials, extended position, with a lack of grave goods and pointed in an east west orientation. It was possible that monks would have been buried in their habits or cowls, but this is not necessarily true in all cases. With changing beliefs in the 12th century, there was a change in respect for human remains, with burials often overlapping and a lack of protection for the grave markers. This may explain why there was no identification of the burials from St. Tugel’s.
There may be another reason for why these burials lacked any form of identification and were a surprise to builders. A local legend tells of a massacre of 40 monks during the medieval period, and the story has been linked to St. Tugel’s. Many believe that this may be proof that the story may have actually occurred.The story tells of a massacre occurring during the mid 16th century when Queen Mary I was openly persecuting protestants (Latter 2011). However, archaeologists have not yet fully assessed the reasons for death, and more information is expected within the coming months. Given the ordered nature in which they were buried, it may not be indicative of a massacre.
My personal viewpoint from this is that it is more likely that this area represents a cemetery that was sadly forgotten over time. Whether or not they are monks will require a certain amount of interpretation, and more information on the part of the archaeologists. The burial patterns do suggest Christian, but these could also represent poorer individuals who were visiting the church and couldn’t afford a more proper burial in an established cemetery. In order for them to be determined to be monks, we would need a certain number of skeletal markers to be present such as high evidence of kneeling, or for evidence of cowls or habits to be discovered. In order for some connection to be made to the massacre, evidence of trauma in all or most of the skeletons would be necessary as well as evidence that all of the burials took place within the same discrete time period.
Guernsey News. More Ancient Bones Discovered. Channel TV Online. http://www.channelonline.tv/channelonline_guernseynews/displayarticle.asp?id=493473
BBC. 1,400 years of religious significance. BBC. http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/guernsey/hi/people_and_places/religion_and_ethics/newsid_8695000/8695672.stm
Anderson. 2007. Spoilheap. http://www.spoilheap.co.uk/burintr.htm#med
Latter. 2011. Dem Bones. Guernsey Press. http://www.thisisguernsey.com/2011/02/25/dem-bones/