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St Leonard’s Church has the largest and best-preserved collection of ancient human skulls and bones in Britain. The collection consists of shelves in four arched bays that contain 1,000 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. The stack of bones was reassembled on its brick base in 1910.
Size of the collection
Past historians indicated that the collection represents the remains of some 4,000 people, but it is impossible to verify the number of bones in the stack. Our latest estimate is a maximum number of 1,200 skulls in the crypt and the total number of individuals represented as 2,000.
Earliest written and pictorial evidence
The earliest references to the collection are 1678 by Samuel Jeake, then Town Clerk of Rye, and 1679 by Rev Brome, Chaplain to the Cinque Ports, both of whom described ‘an orderly pile of dead men’s bones’ in the ‘charnel house’ on the north side of the church. The earliest known drawings are dated 1787 depicting piles of skulls and bones inside the crypt’s entrance door, and 1820 showing the south-west bay and stack similar to its present appearance. Postcards in the early 1900s with photographs of the crypt show the layout much the same as it is today.
The crypt as a charnel house
The crypt has been referred to as ‘the bonehouse’ and ‘the ossuary’. One suggestion is that it had been a charnel house or chapel, to house de-fleshed, separate bones and that St Leonard’s is one of a number of English medieval charnel chapels underneath churches, as the Hythe crypt resembles the attributes of other such chapels.
Origins of the collection
There have been many theories over the years as to who the people were and how their remains came to be resting in the crypt. These include Danish pirates slain in a battle (from a footnote on the 1787 drawing mentioned above); men who fell in the 1066 Battle of Hastings (handwritten footnote on a 1860s illustration); and Anglo-Saxons killed in battle. Another suggestion refers to the people being victims of the Black Death, but such bodies were usually hastily disposed of in quicklime.
However, these theories have been rejected by an osteologists’ project from 2009 to 2012 involving analysis of all the skulls on the shelves, which found a higher proportion of females than males, and nearly 10% of sub-adults (juveniles).
Our conclusion 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 previous graves. However, this number of individuals is high for ‘Hythe only’ residents, and the collection probably includes bones from four graveyards in the Hythe area that are said to have fallen out of use and closed by 1500.
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.
Origins of the people
There is no clear evidence of where the people originated. Studies, of which the earliest was in 1908, have been undertaken by measuring up to 30 different dimensions of each of a group of skulls (a technique known as craniometry). The 1908 study, based on just the ratio of the maximum breadth of a skull to its maximum length, indicated a number were of Italian descent. This could have been a possible link with the Romans in view of the nearby Roman port at Lympne (Portus Lemanis), or with traders visiting Hythe when it was an important medieval trading port.
The more detailed studies in the past five years indicated that some people could have been of Scandinavian descent, and one or two skulls appear to show African origins. It is hoped that more definitive evidence of origin can be obtained by a possible future isotope analysis study.
Evidence of injury and disease
Such a large collection can provide some interesting knowledge about the lifestyle of the people concerned through detailed analysis.
A small number of skulls indicate injury through sharp blows. One in the south-west bay with a hole right through it (see photograph to the left) has been suggested to be either a result of trepanning (surgical drilling through the skull), or 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, probably by a sword at the back of the head, which was not immediately fatal because of evidence of healing.
A few bones show breakages during the individual’s lifetime and partial healing, whilst others have evidence of arthritis or bone diseases.
One significant feature of the skulls is the proportion showing evidence of cribra orbitalia, which was a symptom of chronic iron deficiency anaemia related to poor diet and/or infections. The evidence for this comes from pin-prick holes in the bone surface around the eye sockets. 22% of the skulls appear to be affected by this, with a higher proportion among the skulls of young people. The overall proportion in Hythe is much higher than the 10% recorded for English medieval sites. Another indicator of the disease could be malaria, which occurs in marshy or swampy areas.
The standard of teeth still present in the skulls varies, with many of the back molars worn down through constantly eating rough food. A number indicate abscesses and about 10% show pre-death loss of at least one tooth, pointing to lack of dental care/treatment. However, holes in teeth (which would now be treated by fillings) are non-existent, pointing to a sugar-free diet. A lower jaw (in one of the cabinets) shows teeth on either side sloping outwards due to wear. This could indicate that the individual used his/her teeth for a particular purpose, possibly related to occupation.
Recent and current analysis and study
Several studies have taken place since 2008 – by staff and post graduate students of Bournemouth University, by St Leonard’s Osteological Research Group (StLORG), an independent group of forensic scientists and osteologists, and since 2015 by the University of Kent Biological Anthropology lecturer and final-year degree students.
StLORG members completed a three-year project to catalogue and profile all 1,022 skulls on the shelves, to identify the sex and age at death of each person, as well as analysing distinctive features on the skull from injury or disease.
The Kent University projects have focused on measurements of skulls to determine origin, and a study of skulls that show evidence of cribra orbitalia.
Identifying children and young people
techniques have also identified a larger number of children and young
people (termed as ‘sub-adults’ in forensic studies) than was
previously recognised. The age of children and young people can be
determined from the eruption and development of teeth. Two very small
skulls in the south-west bay, which were argued for many years as
being those of dwarfs, have been confirmed by a forensic odontologist
(teeth expert) as being children aged four and six-seven years
respectively, based on their teeth development.
Care and Conservation
All these studies and activities are undertaken with care and respect for the skulls and bones and follow Church of England and English Heritage guidelines for handling human remains. Gloves are worn when handling any skull or bone in the collection. ‘Do not touch’ signs displayed explain the potential harm that hands touching skulls or bones can cause through transfer of sweat or grease.
We are now looking at how best we can preserve the collection for the future based on current conservation practice, for which our small charge for visitors will help in funding practical work.
The skulls and bones have been the subject of increased media coverage since 2010. Various TV companies have included short items in historical, antiques, Great British Railway Journeys (with Michael Portillo) and regional news programmes, the most recent being BBC One South East Today in summer 2017. National and local press coverage has highlighted St Leonard’s Church crypt as a place to visit.
Our aim is to develop our working relationship with the University of Kent biological anthropology staff and students on further studies to advance our knowledge about the origin of the people, and their health and lifestyle.
We shall continue to welcome staff and students from other academic institutions to undertake projects which will benefit their studies and enhance our visitor experience.