Wednesday, 22 February 2012

GUEST POST: Bryan Sitch

The Heronbridge Skeletons at The Manchester Museum

The human skeletons from Heronbridge near Chester have attracted a lot of interest recently. Some of this is thanks to Hannah with whom I discussed the remains last year. Within a matter of hours it seemed Hannah had arranged for me to speak about the discovery at a conference she was organising about Gender and the Middle Ages. In just over five weeks’ time on 29th March there will be another opportunity to explore what the bones mean when the Manchester Museum holds a day school on the Heronbridge skeletons. This is to coincide with a Manchester Anglo-Saxon Studies Colloquium which is being held on 28th March. Hopefully people will find it worthwhile to stay over. What is it that makes the skeletons so interesting?

The skeletons were found during excavations at Heronbridge during the early 1930s. Many of the finds were of Roman date and it was assumed that the skeletons were also of Roman date. In the excavation publication it was stated that the remains would be deposited at the Manchester Museum and that a detailed report had been presented to the university librarian. On the basis of this statement a number of enquirers had contacted the Museum to ask about the skeletons but no-one was able to find them. It was just over a year ago that the penny dropped.

As Curator of Archaeology I had gone through the human remains in the collection to find out what was known about them. I noticed that many of the bones had no associated information. Some, however, had distinctive labels on which Greek characters were written such as alpha, beta, gamma, delta and so on. At the time this meant nothing to me but it quickly became clear when I re-read the brief report about the Heronbridge skeletons published in 1933. In a table at the back of the report the skeletons were listed but half way across the table the numbering changed and the skeletons had dual numbering using Greek characters. On its own this might not be sufficient to tie down the provenance but the bone report also referred to wounds on the skulls. When I checked the skulls I saw large impact trauma, injuries made by long edged weapons. Dr Elwyn Davies who wrote the bone report speculated the injuries were caused by Roman cavalry swords. This conclusion was based on the presence of Roman finds on the Heronbridge site. However, in 2005 further archaeological work was carried out at Heronbridge and two of the skeletons were recovered and radiocarbon dated. The range of dates suggested a time somewhere around the early 7th century AD.

This was extremely interesting because in his 'Ecclesiastical History of the English People' Bede gave an account of the Battle of Chester. A Northumbrian army led by King Aethelfrith fought a smaller force of northern Welsh Britons and defeated it. Bede's account said that Aethelfrith, seeing British Christian monks praying for the defeat of the Northumbrians, ordered his men to cut them down. Many of the monks were killed. The Northumbrians retreated having suffered heavy casualties in their turn and with British reinforcements on their way.

Could the skeletons in the Manchester Museum be casualties of the Battle of Chester in or about 616 AD? None have been radiocarbon dated but they come from very similar contexts to the skeletons lifted in 2005. As the latter have been radiocarbon dated it seems reasonable to infer that the skeletons from the 1930s excavations are of the same date. As the dead were buried in significant numbers in pits (laid out respectfully like sardines in a tin), it must have been a significant battle. The wounds on some of the bones are very similar to those seen on skeletons from Anglo-Saxon cemeteries. And they are all men. I conclude that the skeletons in the Museum must be from the Battle of Chester. To have a sizeable group of human remains showing trauma from a 'Dark Age' battlefield together with an historical account is really exciting.

But who are the skeletons? Which side were they on? Could they be the remains of the monks? Perhaps tidied away respectfully by the Welsh reinforcements that arrived too late to take part in the battle? Prof. Nick Higham of the University of Manchester has argued that we must take what Bede has to say with a large pinch of salt. Bede isn't a reliable guide to events on the battlefield. He was writing providential history and trying to justify the slaughter of Christians by the pagan Anglo-Saxons who would later become Christian. Bede was serving a religious agenda. For instance no early medieval monastery in this country can have had the numbers of monks ascribed to it by Bede. Bu'Lock argued the monks were former warriors who had retired to the cloister to pass their twilight years only to be pressed back into military service in an emergency when the Northumbrians attacked Chester. Again this seems unlikely. Whether we can find out from isotopic studies which part of the world these men came from remains to be seen.

We will explore aspects of the story in the day school at the Manchester Museum on 29th March. Six speakers have confirmed their titles and it looks like a fascinating date.

Bryan Sitch
Deputy Head of Collections and Curator of Archaeology
The Manchester Museum

For more information about the Heronbridge skeletons, see the Ancient Worlds blog from The Manchester Museum.

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