Walking with the Dead – An Archaeologist’s View of the Deceased

Holy Trinity Church Lambley Nottinghamshire James Wright

Graveyard in Holy Trinity Church, Lambley, Nottinghamshire, UK. – Credit to James Wright

To celebrate his up coming talk at the London Fortean Society event ‘The Haunted Landscape: British Folklore, Ghosts and Magic’ this weekend, archaeologist James Wright has kindly written a post for us on what it’s like to work with the dead in a professional capacity.

As I type this guest blog for Graveyard Junkies, I find myself sat in my home study shortly after Hallowe’en. It is an appropriate location and time to write a piece for a website dealing with graveyards and cemeteries. All of the walls are lined, floor to ceiling, with black bookcases containing texts on Mediaeval architecture. I have a single candle lit and there is a charcoal brazier burning frankincense. I’m wearing all black and am listening to Murder Ballads by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

Now, this could be the unfortunate start of an overly romantic, teenage goth’s diary written in silver ink on black paper… However, as a professional archaeologist, architectural historian and former conservation stonemason, death and its memorials have been a constant presence in my life and career. I am, perhaps, drawn to the dark and macabre in culture and the arts simply because an examination of death does not feel unnatural, occult or spooky to me. Death is simply a facet of my professional interest. As a specialist in high status Mediaeval buildings I find myself in churches, chapels, chantries, monasteries and graveyards on a weekly basis. Death is always around me because I literally cannot get away from the fact that I study the material culture of the deceased.

I was raised as a Catholic and, until the age of fifteen, attended church perhaps three or four times a week. I no longer adhere to that faith, but I have always felt eminently comfortable in ecclesiastical buildings. They stand as monuments to an all-encompassing system of belief which has underpinned western society in both life and death. Our oldest functioning churches in Britain stand at Canterbury, Kent (c 597) and Escomb, County Durham (c 640). It is impossible to understand the material culture of our ancestors without fundamentally interrogating the architecture and memorials of their spiritual life.

Perhaps my earliest experience of recording the architecture of death was aged about eight when I was taken to the Brass Rubbing Centre at York. As I laboriously scrubbed the thick black paper with a golden coloured piece of wax, I experienced the simple charm of seeing the Mediaeval faces, clothes, weapons and inscriptions of the long dead appear before my eyes.

Gateford Nottinghamshire excavation archeology Thoroton Society

Credit to Pre-Construct Archaeology / Thoroton Society

My first professional experience of the dead took me to an altogether more ancient time. I came face to face with ten Romano-British inhumations – some with grave goods – whilst working as an archaeological supervisor on a community excavation at Gateford, Nottinghamshire. Somewhat distressingly, six of these late fourth or early fifth century burials were those of neonates – stillborn children – who were interred not in a revered grave, but were placed in a pit alongside household refuse.

Heath Wood barrow cemetery Ingleby Derbyshire viking

Heath Wood Barrow Cemetery, Ingleby, Derbyshire – Credit to James Wright

Another entirely different pagan culture that left its mark on our landscape was the Viking army of 874 who wintered at Repton, Derbyshire during their ferocious conquest of Mercia. The invaders left a cremation cemetery of 59 barrows standing high on a hill at Heath Wood near Ingleby. This is the only pagan Viking graveyard identified within England. When I visited the site early one May evening the low mounds were covered in bluebells, somewhat masking the visceral nature of the burials of the fearsome warriors who so very nearly ended Anglo-Saxon Christian culture.

St Alphage London ruin James Wright

St Alphage, London – Credit to James Wright / MOLA

Ultimately, the pagan societies of the Roman and Early Mediaeval periods were subsumed into the Christian faith. I have produced standing building records of several ecclesiastical buildings for Museum of London Archaeology including the ruinous St Alphage, London. The fourteenth century founder of the priory, the merchant William Elsing, was buried in a tomb that survived the Great Fire of London, Luftwaffe bombs and the overzealous 1960s local authority who wished to demolish the building. The Mediaeval church of St Margaret Pattens was not so fortunate and had to be completely rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire. Survey work in 2014 revealed that part of the late seventeenth century tower had been constructed from Mediaeval masonry which must once have been familiar to the long dead parishioners – many of whom were buried in the churchyard.

John Gower Southwark Cathedral poet tomb james wright

Tomb of poet John Gower in Southwark Cathedral, London – Credit to James Wright

Bankside’s Southwark Cathedral was formerly the monastery of St Mary Ovarie and I worked on this magnificent building in the autumn of 2013. It contains the burials of many folk involved in the literary and theatrical scene including playwright John Fletcher, actor William Kempe, Philip Henslowe the manager of the Rose Playhouse and Edmund, the actor and younger brother of William Shakespeare. The highly painted tomb of the fourteenth century poet, John Gower (who appears as a character in Shakespeare’s Pericles), stands against the wall of the north aisle of the nave. These men live on well beyond their own lifetime through the impact of their work that still shines brightly in the theatrical scene of Bankside and beyond in the twenty-first century. That scene would be less vibrant without the extraordinary efforts of Sam Wanamaker who ensured the construction of Shakespeare’s Globe. Fittingly, Sam is also buried with his illustrious predecessors at Southwark Cathedral.

William Shakespeare grave stratford avon

Grave of William Shakespeare, Church of the Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon-Avon, UK – Credit to Wikipedia Commons

Shakespeare himself feared what would happen to his own mortal remains after his death. He is buried alongside several members of his family in the chancel of Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon-Avon The text of his ledger stone reads: ‘Good frend for Jesus sake forbeare, To digg the dust encloased heare. Bleste be þe man þt spares thes stones, And curst be he þt moves my bones’. Effectively the poet laid a curse on anyone who uncovered his remains and took them to the communal charnel house that was itself demolished in 1790.

The charnel house was once a common feature in churchyards. As the burial grounds filled up to capacity the parish sexton would remove ancient bones to be stacked in the charnel house to create fresh space in the churchyard. The morbid fascination of revealed skeletal remains is of course reflected in the famous gravediggers scene in Hamlet where the eponymous figure is confronted with the skull of Yorick. Bill Bryson also ruminated on the volume of parochial burials in his seminal book on the history of private life, At Home. Bryson’s friend Brian Ayers, the former county archaeologist for Norfolk, states that in a country parish of 250 people the churchyard might be expected to have perhaps twenty thousand corpses interred.

St Marys church happisburgh norfolk

St. Mary’s Church, Happisburgh, Norfolk, UK – Credit to James Wright

In 2010 I discovered for myself just how full churchyards can get when I was visiting St Mary’s, Happisburgh in Norfolk. The spoil from a freshly dug grave lay on the edge of the churchyard and the gravediggers had evidently not behaved in as diligent a manner as could be expected. I recovered perhaps twenty-five human bones and handed them over to a somewhat alarmed vicar who duly arranged for their reburial.

gravestone headstone mary godfree

Gravestone of Mary Godfree – Credit to MOLA / Crossrail

Sadly, even the memorials left behind by the bereaved to their loved ones also have a habit of being removed. This was brought home to me in 2015 when Museum of London Archaeology asked me to analyse the tombstone of Mary Godfree – a child that died on 2 September 1665 during an outbreak of bubonic plague in the parish of St Giles Cripplegate. As if poor Mary’s life had not been tragic enough, her tombstone was later reused as part of the foundation of a brick structure in the eighteenth century – itself possibly part of a new grave which was later demolished.

Newstead Abbey Nottingham Byron

Newstead Abbey, Nottinghamshire –  Credit to Wikipedia Commons

The mobility of buried remains was also evident during the years that I worked as a stonemason at Newstead Abbey, Nottinghamshire. The poet Lord Byron owned the decaying property and famously the skull of a monk was discovered in the grounds by his gardener: ‘Observing it to be of giant size, and in a perfect state of preservation, a strange fancy seized me of having it set and mounted as a drinking cup. I accordingly sent it to town, and it returned with a very high polish and of a mottled colour like tortoiseshell.’ Also in the gardens is the tomb of the poet’s dog Boatswain. Byron loved this animal so much that he intended to be interred with Boatswain. However, as his ancestral home was sold prior to his death the new owner understandably declined this wish so that dog and master were separated with Byron’s body lying at St Mary Magdalene, Hucknall.

Headstone grave Fred Dibnah steeplejack

James with the headstone of Fred Dibnah – Credit to James Wright / Mark Stafford

Hopefully the tombstone which I helped master mason Mark Stafford to erect for, steeplejack and television presenter, Fred Dibnah in 2005 will stand for many centuries to come. Fred was a very simple soul who had a deep love for industrial and architectural heritage. Consequently, his widow requested that the tombstone reflected these facets of his character. Mark used a hard-wearing local sandstone with a simple slate insert which was inscribed with Fred’s name, dates, a reference to his award of MBE (for which he was justifiably proud) and the word ‘Remember’ whereby the letter ‘b’ resembles a chimney emitting smoke in reference to his work as a steeplejack. Fittingly the grave is visible from Fred’s former house and workshop.

As I encounter the physical remains, memorials and architecture of the deceased it is vitally important to recall that these were once living souls who were subject to the same emotions and thoughts as ourselves, albeit through the filter of historical cultural experience. The memorials of the famous or rich, such as Shakespeare, vastly outnumber those of the poor and unknown such as Mary Godfree. However, both were once happy, sad, angry, excited and anxious in the same human condition.

Ritual Protection Mark withcraft Happisburgh Norfolk

Ritual Protection Mark, Happisburgh, Norfolk, UK – Credit to James Wright

The vast majority of people from the Mediaeval period have left no memorial and do not even appear in court records or parish registers. They are the anonymous and lost faces of the past. Yet, we can encounter their hopes, fears and desires all around us in the church buildings that they once worshipped in. The walls are literally alive with their experiences in the form of historic graffiti. This was formerly not a transgressive act and was an accepted and common practice. Look closely at the walls in the raking light of a torch and you can see ships sailing over the stone, knights wielding swords, cats grooming themselves and, speaking directly of the cultural anxieties of the people, ritual protection marks carved to ward off evil.

The dead may be gone, but their voices are still loud and clear – we just have to learn how to listen.

by James Wright
Doctoral Researcher, University of Nottingham

‘The Haunted Landscape: British Folklore, Ghosts and Magic’ event run by the London Fortean Society is happening on Saturday 19th November. Unfortunately tickets are now all sold out but you can be added to the waiting list to see if any become available by emailing Scott Wood forteansociety@live.co.uk

For more information on The London Fortean Society please visit the blog or Facebook page.

James’ books can be purchased by clicking these links:
Castles of Nottinghamshire
‘A Palace For Our Kings – The history and archaeology of a Mediaeval royal palace in the heart of Sherwood Forest’

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