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The river of bones in London

Map of burials in London via the Museum of London Archaeology

The city of London is built on marshland in the Thames river valley.  The archaeological record shows that Mesolithic people settled the area as early as 7000 years ago, but the Romans founded the city in the 1st century.  Though the Thames is probably the city’s most famous river, London has many subterranean rivers, the largest being the River Fleet.  As London grew, area rivers were bricked over and forced underground.  As people died, medieval cemeteries replaced Roman cemeteries, with some cemeteries stacked on top of one another.  The rivers and the dead were buried deep underground.

Map via the DailyMail of where the skulls were found in London

This week Museum of London archaeologists working at the Crossrail excavation site found 20 skulls that they believe are Roman. The Crossrail archaeologists say that Walbrook River, a tributary of the Thames that was paved over in the 15th century, eroded Roman graves and dispersed these newly discovered skulls.  Don Walker, an osteologist working at the site, told the BBC that said the skulls were probably buried in different environments, shown by their varying shades staining in brown and grey.

Though the archaeologists were really excited about the discovery, they didn’t seem that surprised, maybe because of the proximity of Roman cemeteries to waterways in the area.   To put this find in context, there are at least two Roman cemeteries in the London area, and two other cemeteries are believed to contain Roman burials (St Benet Sherehog and Spitalfields).  All of which are close to the Thames and London’s underground rivers.

In a country where archaeologists make discoveries in parking lots and flowerbeds, I guess nothing shocks its archaeologists anymore.   Below is a short list (I’m sure I’ve missed something) of some Roman cemeteries near the Thames in London.  London itself is city filled with cemeteries, charnel houses, plague pits, and mass graves.   So it’s not unusual for human remains to wash ashore on the banks of the Thames (see this and this).  The banks of the river are littered with bones.

Roman West (1st-5th century CE)

Photo via the DailyMail of the excavations of the graves at the Roman West Cemetery.

This cemetery lies outside the western boundary of the first city in the Roman province, Londinium, but now lies at the western end of the modern City of London.  Late 1st-century land reclamation by the Romans was followed by the establishment of the cemetery. Excavations in the area of the western Roman cemetery have been carried out at several sites over the last 30 years. A total of 19 inhumations and 29 cremations were identified, most dating from the 2nd and 3rd centuries.

Roman East (1st-5th century)

Photo via of a Roman cremation urn

The original Roman burial site could have contained as many as 100,000 graves.  The earliest burial dates from the first century CE, and the cemetery may have remained in use until the fifth century.  Recent excavations of the site revealed 672 graves and 134 cremations – the largest single sample of Roman burials to have been uncovered in London.

St Benet Sherehog (1670-1853)

Photo via Museum of London Archaeology for an excavation of a burial at St. Benet’s.

The church is thought to date from the late 11th century, but the site also revealed Roman remains from as early as the first century CE.  274 burials were excavated between 1994 and 1996.

Spitalfields (250-400) (1100-1539)

Photo via the Museum of London Archaeology of the Spitalfields Charnel House.

Excavations for a new office building in the late 1990s led to the discovery of more than 10,000 medieval graves from the site of the old St Mary Spital, one of the largest hospitals in England, which was founded in 1197.  Historians believe that the medieval burials lay above a Roman cemetery, situated on the main road north out of the city.  A charnel house was also discovered on this site, which was built in the early 1300s as the crypt of a chapel that stood in the cemetery. For more than 200 years it was a repository for bones disturbed when gravediggers buried new bodies in the hospital cemetery.  The architects for the office building incorporated the charnel house into the design of the building to preserve the 700 year-old crypt, and today visitors and office workers can view the charnel house.

Bedlam Cemetery (1569-1750’s)

Photo via the Crossrail website of an excavation of grave at Bedlam cemetery.

Cemetery contains 20,000 skeletons including patients of Bedlam asylum, with some discovered just a few feet underground.  The graveyard was built in the 1560s after churchyards around the city started to overflow, and used to bury London’s poor and religious non-conformists as well as inmates from the asylum.

Chelsea Old Church (1700-1850)
 Also known as All Saints

Photo via Wellcome Trust of a skeleton of a pregnant young woman and her unborn child, estimated to have died between 1700 and 1850

The cemetery was excavated in 2000 because of developments in the area, which lead to the discovery of 300 18th- and 19th-century burials. Records and Coffin plates and biographical allowed the identification of 25 individuals. This records and biographical evidence, suggests that the cemetery contained mostly those of high status.

St Bride’s Church Cemetery and Charnel House at Fleet Street and 

St Bride’s Lower Cemetery 

Photo of the Charnel House at St. Bride’s.

Also known as “The Journalists Church,” St Bride’s is one of London’s most ancient churches, with worship taking place at the site as early as the 7th century.  Excavations in the 1950’s were carried out because of the bomb damage incurred to the church during the WWII. This cemetery has a long history of building phases (about 8) and a large number of skeletal remains from a medieval charnel house and individuals interred in the crypts, which were sealed in the 1850’s by an Act of Parliament.  The medieval charnel house has piles of bones buried on top of one another and may contain the remains of 7000 people.

St. Bride’s Lower cemetery was founded due to overcrowding in the churchyard at nearby St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street. An excavation unearthed 606 individuals that most likely contained individuals from Bridewell workhouse and Fleet prison, which were located nearby. Parish records confirm that a majority of the burials from the cemetery were of low socioeconomic status.

East Smithfield Black Death (1348-50) and 
St Mary Graces (1353-1540)

Photo via the DailyMail of graves excavated at East Smithfield’s plague cemetery

Founded in the mid-fourteenth century, it was one of two emergency burial grounds established when the Black Plague ravaged London. Excavations undertaken between 1983 and 1988 unearthed 759 burials.

Cross Bones (1598-1540)

Photo via the DailyMail of a skeleton at Crossbones. Archaeologists believe she was a prostitute who suffered from rickets and syphilis.

Established in the 17th century as a cemetery for prostitutes and the poor, this burial ground served the poor of the St Saviour’s parish.  By 1769 it had become a pauper’s graveyard for the poor and outcast of London society.  Up to 15,000 people are believed to be buried there.  Skeletons exhumed between 1991-1998 revealed conditions associated with poverty, such as rickets and syphilis.

Bermondsey Abbey (1066-1540)

Photo via BBC, skeleton excavated from monastic burial site at Bermondsey Abbey. Believed to have lived between 500 to 900 years ago.
He suffered a fracture to his right hi

The Abbey of St Saviour in Bermondsey was founded in 1082.  In 1984 and 1988 excavations were carried out at Bermondsey, which is located on the south side of the Thames, across from the infamous Tower of London.  During excavations of the 1980’s, archaeologists and anthropologists who examined the remains of 201 individuals and identified conditions consistent with arthritis and obesity.

Read more at:

Museum of London Archaeology

Museum of London: Bermondsey Abbey

Museum of London: Black Death Cemetery

Museum of London: Roman West

Museum of London: St. Benet Sherehog

Museum of London: St. Bride’s Fleet Street

Museum of London: St. Bride’s Lower

The Telegraph: Charnel House Brought to Light

Wellcome Skeletal Collection 

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