St Leonards Ossuary

22 images Created 6 Jun 2017

St Leonard’s Church has the largest and best-preserved collection of ancient human bones and skulls in Britain. The collection consists of shelves in four arched bays that contain 1,022 skulls in total, and a single stack of bones and skulls measuring 7.5m in length, 1.8m in width and just over 1.8m in height. We know that the stack of bones was reassembled on its brick base in 1910.

There have been many theories over the years as to who the people were and how they came to be resting in the crypt. The 1787 drawing, mentioned above, stated in a footnote that the bones were supposed to be those of ‘Danish pirates slain in a battle’ whilst a handwritten footnote on an 1860s illustration referred to them as ‘men who fell in the Battle of Hastings (1066)’. Another argument said they were Anglo-Saxons killed in battle. It was also thought that the people were victims of the Black Death, but such bodies were usually hastily disposed of in quicklime.
There is no firm evidence to support these theories. Moreover a project from 2009 to 2012 to analyse all the skulls on the shelves has shown that there is a higher proportion of females than males, and nearly 10% of sub-adults (juveniles), whilst only a handful of skulls indicate wounds from blows to the head.

A group of osteologists started an exercise in 2009 to measure the dimensions of the skulls (through the technique of craniometry) to identify, through a worldwide database, the origin of a small number of the skulls. The initial findings indicate the people are local to Kent.

The general consensus now is that they were Hythe residents who died over a long period and had been buried in the churchyard (evidenced by the deposits of soil within the skulls), and that the earliest of the remains were dug up in the 13th century when the church was extended eastwards over their graves by the addition of the large chancel.
No accurate evidence for the date of death of the people has been determined, and estimates range from 12th to 15th centuries, though more likely to be 13th century if it coincides with the building of the chancel.

A collection such as this provides interesting knowledge about the lifestyle of the people concerned through detailed analysis.
A very small number of skulls reveal injury through sharp blows. One in the south-west bay with a hole right through it (see photograph in this section), which for many years was thought to be a result of trepanning – surgical drilling through the skull – has now been analysed as caused by a sharp object, such as a dagger, because of the radiating fractures inside the skull.
Another skull in the south-west bay shows a severe dent caused by a blunt object such as a stone, whilst a skull in the north-east bay indicates injury from a slicing blow by a sword or similar weapon at the back of the head, which was not immediately fatal and healed over time.
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