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New role for old bones at English Anglo-Saxon church


St Peter’s, a 10th century church at Barton-upon-Humber in north-east England, has reopened after a 600 000 British pound (US$1.2 million) makeover. It is now an international centre for the study of human remains, and a visitor attraction.

When this (Anglican) Church of England building became redundant 30 years ago, the bones of some 3760 people buried there over the course of 1000 years were removed for use in medical research into the development of diseases. The bones are now being returned for storage within the church in 3500 boxes that will be kept in a purpose-built ossuary, or bone repository. This is the first ossuary of its kind in England, and its contents will be available on site to all bona fide researchers.

"Buried Lives", a separate public interactive exhibition that opened in the building on 24 May and runs till 30 September, tells the story of the church with its unique Saxon tower and only extant baptistery of the period.

The exhibition centrepiece is a display of three complete skeletons. One, in its original oak coffin, is of a man who died at the time of the Norman Conquest of England in the 11th century. Another is a 13th century priest, whose calling is identified by the chalice buried beside him. The third skeleton is that of an early 19th century woman.

The thousands of bones now available for further study reveal that poor nutrition, polio and many forms of arthritis were prevalent in the area. Despite the perceived violence of the times, only six individuals showed signs of injuries caused by swords or knives.

"It is envisaged as a pilot scheme which could be adopted for other collections elsewhere, as there is a lot of scientific and academic interest," Kevin Booth, senior curator of English Heritage, which carried out the project in agreement with the Church of England, explained to Ecumenical News International.

"The church was keen that the bones be returned to a consecrated place of rest, where they will be blessed at a special service, probably on St Peter’s Day, next February," said Booth. "The exhibition shows what changing burial traditions tell us about past societies, and highlights how the bones are being used by scientists to uncover secrets about disease and diet."

The names of the people exhibited as skeletons are not known, and the exhibition organizers have decided that it would be inappropriate to give them names for display purposes.

(c) Ecumenical News International