Charnel Houses: Ancient, Medieval and Modern

Recently in the Orkney Isles in Scotland, a charnel house has revealed more than 1,000 human bones. The remains are approximately 5,000 years old, and were found in one of the closed off chambers in the Tomb of the Otters. The tomb itself was discovered last year by local farmers, and was given the name due to the high number of otters that were found around it. Archaeological investigation began in December 2010, and the remains of eight people were recovered. More recent investigations have focused on the other chambers, revealing a minimum of 6 more individuals. The remains are fragmentary and commingled, so the estimate on individuals is fairly conservative, and archaeologists believe the actual number of individuals found is much higher.

The new cache of 1,000 bones were found preserved in several layers on the bottom of the stone-lined cell, or cist. All bony elements were found including a number of smaller bones which are usually not recovered. Also, all ages and sexes were represented in the assemblage. The bones were divided by layers of silt, which may indicate that they had been placed there over a long period of time. The archaeologists hope that these layers of silt will be useful in figuring out how long the tomb has been in use. By combining this with DNA analysis they will be able to discover who the people were who were buried there. As they continue the excavation, they hope to better understand the assemblage as a whole, and the purpose and duration of the charnel house.

Charnel houses have been found in a number of cultures throughout time and space. The charnel house is a vault or building where human skeletal remains are stored. Charnel houses are built near churches to allow for bones which have been unearthed to be stored. They are most frequently found in regions where there is limited space for burials or where burial in soil is more difficult. However, they can also serve as a way to unite individuals after death or show status. In order to understand the purpose of the charnel house, it is important to also understand the population itself and their reason for using the house.

In the UK, charnel houses have been found throughout the country. In London, a medieval Charnel House was found associated with St. Mary Spital priory. For 200 years, this site served as a storehouse for any bones that were disturbed during the placement of new burials outside of a hospital. The site dates from the 14th to 16th centuries. During the Dissolution of the Monasteries, as ordered by Henry VIII in 1539, the charnel house was shut down. In 1700 the chapel was demolished and the charnel house was filled in with earth; new housing was built above it and in the 20th century a market was placed over it. The charnel house was discovered in 1999 during excavations by the Museum of London. The Spitalfields collection has been vital towards understanding life in the medieval period. The purpose of the charnel house was to make space for the recently dead to be buried within the consecrated grounds. This way, they could fit more people into the limited burial space in London.

In Greece the charnel house continues to be used. In Lehonia the community has only recently began to decrease the use of the charnel house. O’Rourke (2007) conducted long term fieldwork in Lehonia, Greece and argues that the controlled burial practice was part of the larger community unity in the 1980’s (O’Rourke 2007:391). The unified and equal burial practices served as an indicator of social solidarity, and that prosperity of few was for the benefit of all, minimizing class conflicts. The normal burial practice was that individuals were buried for two years, and then their remains were moved to the charnel house. However, over time community identity was weakened due to a decrease in agricultural prosperity, and identification with the nearby city, rather than Lehonia, as the ‘community’(O’Rourke 2007:394) . O’Rourke argues that when looking at the changes in mourning practices, it is important to look beyond death at the life and practice of the community and individual. As the community becomes less of a structuring identity, the individuals seek to commemorate in diverse ways, undermining of the equality and unity that was previously emphasized at the cemetery and in the larger community (O’Rourke 2007:399).

By looking at a prehistoric, historic and modern example of a charnel house we can see a range of behaviors. While we know the least about the prehistoric, our understanding of the historic and modern can aid in our interpretations. Perhaps the Tomb of the Otters served as a place where ancestors were put in an effort to maintain family ties, or maybe it served as an easier place to burial individuals than the ground. As more information becomes available on the Tomb of the Otters, we can combine that archaeological data with known regional and cultural information, as well as insights gained from other time periods and modern analyses in order to make better interpretations.

Works Cited

O’Rourke. 2007. Mourning becomes eclectic: death of communal practice in a Greek cemetery. In American Ethnologist 32:2.

Howarth. 2011. Charnel house gives up its secrets. Scotsman.  http://thescotsman.scotsman.com/scotland/Charnel-house-gives-up-its.6786940.jp

Fleming. 2005. Secrets of the charnel house brought to life. The Telegraph.  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1493775/Secrets-of-the-charnel-house-are-brought-to-light.html

7 responses to “Charnel Houses: Ancient, Medieval and Modern

  1. Every time I hear the phrase “charnel house” I think of the de Bry illustration of one that went with Thomas Hariot’s “A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia” (1588) – http://www.learnnc.org/lp/multimedia/6275. The tradition of secondary burial among the Native Americans of Virginia and North Carolina (at least at the time of contact) was quite strong. The dead would decompose for a while in the charnel house (the Algonkian one was an above-ground structure as illustrated) and then be laid to rest in a large burial mound. We excavate these burial mounds all the time in VA and NC – there’s regional variation, of course, but most of the groups practiced secondary burial.

    It’s also interesting, of course that the Algonkian charnel house was the first step in a burial ritual, whereas the term is used to describe in other cultures the practice of sweeping aside the dead once decomposed – not really a step in the ritual (or a cleaning step before the ritual starts anew with another person). Just another example of why we need better definitions (more precise terminology) in bioarchaeology!

  2. I’m going through a few osteology/physical anthropology related blogs (grad student in the field, and this is proof that you can find anything on the internet!)

    But most of these I’m adding to my RSS feed and I can’t find a link anywhere to subscribe to you, and this is depressing. Did I miss it or is it non-existent?

    • BHG, for the RSS you can just add the website name with feed on it.
      bonesdontlie.wordpress.com/feed
      That should work!
      I’ve also put the link to it on my page underneath the twitter feed

  3. BHG – Most blogs these days don’t have obvious RSS links. Check your brower in or near the URL box. Is there an orange RSS icon? (I’m using Chrome, and there’s an RSS icon immediately to the right of the URL on this page.)

    • Just a supplementary note to say that Firefox 4 and 5 have removed the RSS icon that appeared in the URL bar on earlier versions of that browser; however, where a page has a feed, that can still be found in the “Bookmarks” menu via the item “Subscribe to This Page”.

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