Digital Ossuary

What we know about those at rest

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.

 

What's an ossuary?

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.

ossuary

noun /ˈɒs.jʊə.ri'/ a place or container where the bones of dead people are kept

ORIGIN OF OSSUARY
1650-60 < Late Latin ossuarium, variant of ossarium, equivalent ot oss- (stem of os) + -arium -ary.

A dunes graveyard

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.

Archaeologist digging in the dunes at Bamburgh

1. Archaeological dig over 8 years in the Bamburgh Dunes

An example find; an unearthed skeleton in the Bowl Hole graveyard

2. Careful recording, research & analysis of the Anglo-Saxon finds

People carrying the ossuary boxes to the church

3. A poignant service to reinter the remains at St Aidan's Church

Rows of ossuary boxes housed in the crypt

4. At rest in the crypt with information digitally and on site

Why Codewords?

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.

These people aren't just data

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!

At rest in the Crypt

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. 

 

The ossuary boxes in the crypt contain the bones found for each skeleton

  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence An older woman and 156 cm tall (5 feet 1 inch). Osteoarthritis is present in the spine. Many of the […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A 4-7 year old child with a poorly preserved skeleton. There is a partial and mixed set of teeth present […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence An older man with moderate preservation of his skeleton and 174 cm tall (5 feet 8 inches). The teeth show […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A young adult man of around 25 to 35 years of age and 166 cm tall (5 feet 5 inches). […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A young adolescent/adult woman aged between 15 and 24 years and 167 cm tall (5 feet 6 inches). Two of […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A young adult man around 18 to 24 years of age. This is a quite well preserved skeleton but has […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence An older man. The skeleton is eroded and fragmentary but is about 80 % complete. Tooth decay and plaque is […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A neonate (newborn baby) aged between 40 weeks gestation and 1 month old. Only milk teeth are present. Interpretation of […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence An 8 year old child with a poorly preserved skeleton, preventing much interpretation. Interpretation of the evidence Child mortality was […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A young adult or teenager/adolescent of uncertain sex and with poor bone preservation. Some indication of infection in the area […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A woman of who may be young or old (age at death was difficult to assign) and 159 cm tall […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A 5-7 year old child with both milk and adult teeth present. Plaque is present on both the milk teeth […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A 9 to 10 year old child with some dental disease affecting both their adult and milk teeth. The skeleton […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A teenager/adolescent or young adult of uncertain age due to a dental age estimate of 19 to 30 years and […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A young adult, likely male, of around 21 to 35 years of age and 179 cm tall (5 feet 11 […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence Adult woman. Some plaque is present on the teeth. Squatting facets are present on the shin bones (tibias), identified by […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence An 11 to 13 year teenager/adolescent with a well preserved skeleton. There is some sign of a response to potential […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A 5-7 year old child with both milk and adult teeth. Interpretation of the evidence Child mortality was likely high […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence An older woman and 158 cm tall (5 feet 2 inches). Plaque was present on teeth and there was pronounced […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A young woman ages around 25 to 35 years and 166 cm tall (5 feet 4 inches). There is plaque […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence An older male of 50 to 60 years and some 172 cm tall. The teeth show tooth decay and plaque […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A middle-aged or older man and 179 cm tall (5 feet 10 inches). All his teeth had been lost after […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A young woman around 20 to 25 years of age and 154 cm tall (5 feet 1 inch). Some gum […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence An older adult of uncertain sex due to the relatively poor state of skeletal preservation. The teeth had evidence of […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A young adult, likely female and 162 cm tall (5 feet 4 inches). Interpretation of the evidence In Anglo-Saxon Britain, […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence An older man and 187 cm tall (6 feet 1 inch). The teeth show tooth decay, plaque, an infected tooth […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A neonate (newborn baby) of some 38 weeks gestation. Teeth were not present but a jaw bone recovered from the […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A young man around 23 to 25 years of age with a well-preserved skeleton and 178 cm tall (5 feet […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A young woman of around 18 to 25 years of age and 165 cm in height (5 feet 5 inches). […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence An older man and 179 cm tall (5 feet 10 inches). Dental plaque, tooth loss in life, an infected tooth […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A 5 to 7 year old child with milk and adult teeth present. ‘Small holes’ in the bony eye sockets […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence An older woman and 169 cm tall (5 feet 7 inches). There is tooth decay, plaque, gum disease and dental […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A 5 to 6 year old child with milk and adult teeth. Plaque is present on the milk teeth. Interpretation […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence An adult man. A poorly preserved skeleton with osteoarthritis in his right hand. Traces of what was likely a cyst […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A middle-aged or older woman, but no further evidence in her skeleton related to her life history was present. Interpretation […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A likely older adult woman with a poorly preserved skeleton that limits our understanding of the individual. There is evidence […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence An older woman and 158 cm tall (5 feet 2 inches). Tooth decay and plaque are present on many teeth, […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence This was the disturbed burial of an adult of unknown sex. The fragments of skull show a possible infected tooth […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence An older man and 166 cm tall (5 feet 5 inches). The jaws and teeth show evidence of tooth decay, […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence An older man and 177 cm tall (5 feet 10 inches). Tooth decay and plaque are present and there is […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence An 8 to 9 year old child with adult and milk teeth present. Some plaque is present on the permanent […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A child of around 2 years of age with both milk and adult teeth present. Interpretation of the evidence As […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A 6 to 7 year old child with a well-preserved skeleton. Both milk and adult teeth were present. He or […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence An 18 month to 3 year old child. Interpretation of the evidence Infant mortality was likely very high in Anglo-Saxon […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A neonate (newborn baby) with good to moderate preservation for such a small skeleton (vulnerable to damage whilst buried). No […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A young woman of about 20 to 30 years of age and 177cm tall (5 feet 7 inches ). Some […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A young man of around 20 to 30 years of age and 177 cm tall (6 feet). A benign slow-growing […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A young adult, likely female, of around 20 to 30 years of age and 156 cm tall (5 feet 1 […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A young woman around 20 to 25 years of age represented by a partial skeleton but with a well-preserved skull. […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence An older man and 178 cm tall (5 feet 10 inches). Vertebrae of his spine are fused and the spine […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence An older woman and 166 cm tall (5 feet 5 inches). Some enamel defects, or hypoplasia, of the tooth enamel […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A middle-aged to older man and 159 cm tall (5 feet 3 inches). Tooth decay and plaque are present on […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A young adult man around 20 to 25 years of age, and with a height of 173cm (5 feet 8 […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence An 18 month to 2 year old child. Poorly preserved with only 20% of the skull surviving. A mix of […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A young man around 21 to 35 years of age and 163 cm tall (5 feet 4 inches). Plaque and […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence An older man with a well-preserved skeleton and 166 cm tall (5 feet 5 inches). The teeth are in a […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A poorly preserved skeleton, but likely a middle-aged or older woman. The teeth show plaque and some thinning of the […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A woman of around 25 to 35 years of age and 163 cm tall (5 feet 4 inches). Tooth decay […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence An older person tentatively identified as a woman because of the skeleton being rather fragmentary, this person was 162 cm […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence An older woman, but a relatively poorly preserved skeleton. Osteoarthritis was present in both hip joints. Tooth root decay was […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A middle-aged woman and 168 cm tall (5 feet 6 inches). Plaque and some enamel thinning (enamel defects, or hypoplasia) […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A 7-10 year old child with milk and adult teeth present. Some slight thinning of the enamel (enamel defects, or […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence An older woman and 163 cm tall (5 feet 4 inches). Plaque is present on her teeth and there are […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A young adult around 18 to 25, likely female, and 164 cm tall (5 feet 5 inches). There is widespread […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A 14 to 16 year old teenager/adolescent. His/her teeth had evidence of plaque and tooth decay on them. Interpretation of […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence An older man and 174 cm tall (5 feet 8 inches). There was substantial tooth loss during his life with […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence An older man with good preservation and 175 cm tall (5 feet 9 inches). Tooth decay, dental plaque and an […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A 2 to 4 year old child with both milk and adult teeth. Thinning of the dental enamel is present […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence An older man and 179 cm tall (5 feet 10 inches). Tooth decay and plaque are present on the teeth, […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A 12 to 18 month old child. Milk and adult teeth were present. Interpretation of the evidence Child mortality was […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence An older woman with tooth decay, plaque, an infected tooth root, and tooth loss during life. Osteoarthritis in her right […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A 5-7 year old child with both milk and adult teeth present. Tooth decay is seen in the milk teeth […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence An older woman with a poorly preserved skeleton. Some enamel thinning (enamel defects, or hypoplasia) is present and there was […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A 12 to 18 month old child with milk and adult teeth present. Interpretation of the evidence Infant mortality was […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A young woman around 25 to 30 years of age and 167 cm tall (5 feet 6 inches). Tooth decay […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence An older man and 172 cm tall (5 feet 8 inches). Tooth decay and plaque are present on the teeth […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A 14 to 16 year old teenager/adolescent, based on bone development and fusion, and 11 to 12 years by bone […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence An older man and 172 cm in height (5 feet 8 inches). Tooth decay and a lot of dental plaque […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence An older man, but his age is uncertain due to poor skeletal preservation, and particularly the skull and upper spine. […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A young adult man and 169 cm tall (5 feet 7 inches). Some tooth decay was present but the teeth […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence An older man and 184 cm tall (6 feet 5 inches). The teeth had plaque on them, and there was […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A young man around 17 to 25 years of age and 178 cm tall. Tooth decay, plaque and pronounced thinning […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A 7 to 9 year old child with both milk teeth and adult teeth present. Some thinning of the enamel […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A 5 to 7 year old child with both milk and adult teeth present. Some tooth decay and plaque are […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence An 11 to 12 year old child with a well preserved skeleton and both milk and adult teeth present. The […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A young adult around 17 to 20 years of age and likely female, 168 cm tall (5 feet 6 inches). […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence An older woman and 169 cm tall (5 feet 7 inches). There is evidence for a joint problem: osteochondritis dissecans. […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence Older man. There is evidence for plaque on some teeth and tooth decay, the worst of which has led to […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence An older man and 173 cm tall (5 feet 8 inches). There was decay of the roots of some teeth […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A young adult around 30 years of age, likely male, and 162 cm tall (5 feet 4 inches). The skeleton […]
  • What this skeleton told us: Evidence A young adult of around 18 to 25 years of age. The skeleton was only 30% complete, which made estimating […]

Glossary

Origins: Local, British & Overseas

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.


Dating

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.


Burial Traditions

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.