This is the last resting place of people who lived here 1,400 years ago, when Bamburgh was the cosmopolitan centre of the Golden Age of Northumbria. Just like us, these people lived and worked in this spectacular coastal village or travelled from far and wide to visit and enjoy its treasures.
An Ossuary is the final resting place of human bones following a temporary burial elsewhere.
If burial space is scarce, a human body may be first buried in a grave and then later the bones dug up and placed in an ossuary. An ossuary may take many forms including a box, well or an area in a particular building like a church, and enable the remains of many more people to be stored in a smaller area.
Some ossuaries contain specific bones of the body like skulls. Some of the earliest ossuaries were deep wells used in Persia dating back 3,000 years ago but there are also many more recent ones across Europe for example in Hythe, Kent, and Rothwell, Northamptonshire.
ORIGIN OF OSSUARY
1650-60 < Late Latin ossuarium, variant of ossarium, equivalent ot oss- (stem of os) + -arium -ary.
All the individuals in this ossuary came from the 'Bowl Hole' graveyard.
First revealed by a violent storm in the 19th century, the Bowl Hole graveyard is hidden within the sand dunes a few hundred meters south of Bamburgh Castle. Dozens of individuals were uncovered during excavations between 1998 to 2007. These remains have been analysed to tell us about these people and their lives. You can examine a map of the dig site.
Everyone in our ossuary was a living breathing person.
They had lives and names. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing their names. Anglo-Saxon graves can include items, or 'grave goods', but typically bear no surviving explicit marker of who is present. The graves in the Bowl Hole are no exception. Referring to the information gathered on these people by only a number seems rather impersonal.
Neither do we want to high-handedly 'rename' these people. Therefore, to help differentiate these individuals, we've have given each entry a 'codeword' and used Anglo-Saxon terms, to give a taste of their 6th and 7th century world. This is Old-English, and it is a little strange to our ear, but each word is defined on the individual entry pages for you. It is worth noting that the codewords are randomly assigned, but the etymology (history) of each word can be fascinating!
The skeletons from the Bowl Hole graveyard are now in St Aidan's crypt.
Placed in modern ossuary boxes, the skeletons excavated from the Bowl Hole were laid to rest in the crypt of St Aidan’s, Bamburgh in 2016. You can view the room containing the rows of ossuary boxes through a small gate from the main crypt. To find out more about these people, where they came from, something of their lives and the aliments they suffered with visit the Digital Ossuary.
* Please note: the ossuary contains many photos of human remains.
You can filter the 99 ossuary entries by what we have discovered about them. Each entry includes what we know about the individual along with a photo, drawing and map. The photo shows how they were discovered in the Bowl Hole graveyard, the diagram is rendered from a detailed archaeologist's drawing created by the research team and the map shows where in the Bowl Hole dig site they were discovered.
How can we tell? Human teeth tell us a lot. Our research has clearly revealed dental disease (cavities in the white enamel, for example) but there's a hidden story related to how our teeth record our diet. Both the type of diet we eat and the soil beneath us in which our food grew. Plants take up the chemical strontium from the soil. Eating those plants when our teeth are developing in our youth captures the strontium in our tooth enamel.
At the time food was largely locally sourced so the strontium readings in the Bowl Hole skeleton's teeth will often reflect the local strontium in the underlying geology and soil. Therefore, a little bit of local strontium is in the teeth of all our ossuary occupants. However, if a person had been born and raised elsewhere on a different geology and soil with a different strontium reading to that of Bamburgh we can detect the difference. We can determine their origin to some degree by comparing the strontium reading to known geologies.
Radiocarbon dating works by comparing two of the three different naturally occurring isotopes of Carbon. Isotopes are very similar chemically but have measurably different masses. 12C is the most common and stable isotope with 2 neutrons less than the heavier 14C. The 14C in the skeletons came from the food they ate and is not replenished after death.
It takes 5,730 years for half of the 14C found in these bones to decay. We can use that radioactive decay as a ‘clock’ because it is unaffected by physical and chemical conditions like temperature and water content. Comparing the ratio of the two isotopes at the time of death and today, we can calculate how much time has passed.
We cannot definitively know the religious affiliation of our ossuary occupants. However, we can attempt to understand the tradition in which they were buried. Our largest clue is the burial position of the individual.
It might surprise you to see some of the people in our ossuary were discovered buried face down (prone) or in a crouched position on their side. Burials that were not stretched out on their backs with their arms by their sides, their legs straight out, and their heads to the west represent a holdover of various burial traditions that predate the conventional Christian tradition. That tradition only becomes the norm after about AD 900. This does not mean that they represent non-Christian burials, more that the Bowl Hole cemetery dates from the start of these traditions still fluid. Variations likely represent cultural indicators but at the moment we are struggling to understand them.