Archaeologists overseeing construction at Durham University’s Palace Green Library discovered two mass graves in November of 2013. Durham University archaeologists didn’t know it at the time but these skeletal remains would solve a mystery that dates back to 1650.
On September 3rd 1650 a short but bloody battle was fought in Dunbar, Scotland between the English Parliamentarians and the Scottish Royalists during the Third English Civil War (1642-1652). In less than one hour the Parliamentarians commanded by Oliver Cromwell crushed a Scottish army loyal to Charles II (Brown 2015). An estimated 3000 Scottish soldiers perished while the English army lost less than 100 at that Battle of Dunbar.
Cromwell took 5000 men prisoner that day and marched them 100 miles south from Dunbar to Durham, England. 1000 of these men died of hunger, exhaustion, or disease during the grueling journey (Brown 2015). It’s estimated that an additional 1700 prisoners died while jailed at Durham Castle and Cathedral. Those that survived their captivity at Durham were sent to the American colonies to work as indentured servants (Brown 2015).
Historians believed that it was likely that the estimated 1700 prisoners, who died while in captivity at Durham, were buried in the area but scholars didn’t know where until the mass graves were uncovered during the construction at Durham University’s Palace Green Library in 2013, which is part of the city’s UNESCO World Heritage site (Brown 2015).
Durham University archaeologists carefully excavated the two mass graves then analyzed and scientifically tested the bones. Results of the scientific tests and morphological examination of the skeletal remains showed that identities of the bodies buried at Durham University were consistent with the prisoners captured by Cromwell at the Battle of Dunbar in 1650.
A physical examination of the bones revealed that the bones belonged to between 17 and 28 individuals, the ages of which were between 13 and 25 years old at the time of death. Archaeologists noted that all of the adult skeletons were male (Durham University 2015). Isotope analysis of the dental enamel revealed that some of the people were from Scotland or from Northern England (Durham University 2015).
To date the bones researchers used a combination of historical context and radiocarbon dating. Two of the skulls had pipe facets in their teeth these are “crescent-shaped areas of wear and tear” caused by smoking clay pipes (Durham University 2015). Clay pipes were commonly used in Scotland until after 1640. Radiocarbon dating placed the bodies between 1625 and 1660 (Durham University 2015).
Considering the number of Dunbar prisoners who died at Durham, archaeologists believe that there are more mass graves to be found in the area (Miller 2015).
Scottish Soldiers Project: The Identification. (2015). Retrieved from: https://www.dur.ac.uk/archaeology/research/projects/europe/pg-skeletons/find/
Brown, M. (2015). Skeletons found near Durham cathedral were Oliver Cromwell’s prisoners. Retrieved from: http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/sep/02/skeletons-durham-cathedral-oliver-cromwell-prisoner
Miller, B. (2015). Durham skeletons were pipe-smoking young prisoners of war kept in cathedral after Battle of Dunbar. Retrieved from: http://www.culture24.org.uk/history-and-heritage/archaeology/art535961-durham-skeletons-were-pipe-smoking-young-prisoners-war-kept-cathedral-battle-dunbar