Archaeologists have unearthed the remains of hundreds of medieval scholars, all fallen upon hard times, on a site that is now a Cambridge College.
Containing more than 1,000 people, the large graveyard was discovered three years ago beneath the Old Divinity School at St John's College during refurbishment of the Victorian building. Details of the finding have only now been made public.
A report published in the current issue of the Archaeological Journal reveals that 400 perfectly preserved human skeletons were uncovered, along with the disarticulated and fragmentary remains of up to 1,000 more individuals.
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"It's one of the largest medieval hospital osteoarcheological assemblages from the British Isles," dig director Craig Cessford, from the university's department of archaeology and anthropology, said.
Mostly dating from the 13th to 15th centuries, the remains lay in burials belonging to the Hospital of St John the Evangelist. The building, from which St John's College takes its name, stood opposite the graveyard until 1511 and was established to care for "poor scholars and other wretched persons."
"Pregnant women, lepers, the wounded, cripples and the insane were all specifically excludedfrom its care," Cessford wrote.
People were laid to rest without coffins, and even without shrouds, confirming the cemetery was mainly for the poor. Jewellery and personal items, including a crucifix, were only present in a handful of burials.
"Items were found in graves that might represent grave-goods, but their positions were ambiguous and it is equally possible that they represent residual material from earlier activity at the site," Cessford said.
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Anthropological examinations of the remains revealed there was a roughly equal gender balance, with the majority of individuals having died between around 25 and 45 years old.
The archaeologists also noted the complete absence of infants, normally expected in a medieval hospital, and a relative lack of remains of young women, which can be explained by the Hospital's Augustinian ordinance from 1250 to exclude pregnant women from its care.
Some of the skeletons also did not fit their graves.
"This suggests that some, but not all of the graves may have been dug in advance of being needed," Cessford wrote in the Archaeological Journal.
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"One possibility is that this occurred prior to the winter, when ground conditions would have potentially made digging graves considerably more difficult," he added.
No evidence of the Black Death was found among the remains. Most of the skeletons did not show signs of serious illnesses and conditions that would have required medical attention.
"This could reflect that the main role of the Hospital was spiritual and physical care of the poor and infirm rather than medical treatment of the sick and injured," Cessford wrote.
The names of the dead remain a mystery, but a carefully maintained network of gravel paths, a water well and seeds from various flowering plants, suggest the site was a place for people to come and visit their deceased loved ones, much like today's cemeteries.
Image: Hundreds of skeletons lay buried under a Cambridge college. Credit: Craig Cessford, Cambridge University Department of Archaeology and Anthropology.