The Slow Process of Proving That You've Found a Mass Grave

In 2013, while digging a foundation for a library café at Durham University, workers uncovered human remains. Over the next two years, researchers began the process of proving what they suspected—that it was a mass grave dug in the aftermath of a famous battle.

Knowing History

The conclusion that researchers came to after years of work on a group of skeletons found at Durham University wasn’t a big surprise. Most of the interested people suspected it from the beginning. When the university broke ground on a new café that was to be built near a library, they had archaeologists on hand, looking for human remains. They knew to expect them because in 1946, workers digging a trench nearby had cut into what appeared to be a mass grave, although the details of the grave weren’t recorded.

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They also knew to expect human remains because they had a good idea of what happened to the soldiers in the Battle of Dunbar of 1650. Two years before the battle, the English had beheaded their king, Charles I. His son, Charles II, fled to Scotland, where he amassed a large army. Most of the soldiers backed him because they hoped he would advance the cause of Presbyterianism in England. This was both a strength and a drawback. Financially backed by the church, the Scottish soldiers were picked for their faith, not their experience. Oliver Cromwell and the “roundheads,” were represented by the New Model Army, a group of experienced and professional soldiers. At first the Scottish side did very well, mostly by biding their time, denying the opposing side supplies, and seeming to wait them out. The fact that the final battle was at Dunbar testified to their success. Cromwell had first established this as a base, and penetrated into Scotland, only to eventually fall back.

The Battle of Dunbar, which started on September 2, happened because the leader of the Scottish forces, Sir David Leslie, was short on time and money. He let himself out onto unfavorable ground, Cromwell’s better-trained army backed the Scottish forces up against a river, and the Scots lost. After the battle, Cromwell’s troops marched 5000 men a hundred miles south, to Durham. About 2000 died on the journey and another 1500 died while locked in Durham Cathedral. Most of the rest were sold into indentured service.

Everyone had some idea of where the 1500 soldiers were buried, so when the excavation turned up the bones of between 17 and 28 bodies, it was just a matter of proving what most people suspected. But this was not easy.

Proving History

Only wanting to disinter the bodies they had to, the archaeologists asked to be granted an exhumation license for the exposed skeletons—leaving the skeletons they saw under the library foundation where they were. While waiting for the license, they examined the ground. The pit appeared to be regular, but the bodies inside were jumbled, as if they’d been tipped into the ground. Many of the bones had “gnaw marks” on them, so they must have been exposed in the open, where animals could get at them, for some time before they were buried. There were two burial pits that had clearly been dug at around the same time. This meant that a lot of people were dying in a short amount of time.

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When the bones were excavated they were taken to Dr. Anwen Caffell from the Department of Archaeology, to be examined. She found that the bodies, judging from the size of the skulls and shape of the pelvises, were all male, and that none were younger than twelve years of age. Most of them were adolescents or younger adults—around the age of soldiers. What none of the skeletons had was immediately obvious and major injuries. Reportedly, the Scottish troops that had been badly injured at the Battle of Dunbar had been left behind—and those with relatively serious injuries had died during the march. The soldiers who actually died at the Cathedral would have been only moderately injured, or would have died from other causes.

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Samples from different skeletons were subjected to radiocarbon dating tests. The test returned dates of 1610-1635, 1610-1640, and 1610-1645. The Battle of Dunbar was in 1650. Were the researchers making a wrong assumption?

The Clay Pipes

Few people were dissuaded by the initial radiocarbon dates. Although radiocarbon dating can be extremely helpful, it’s more of a tool than an absolute result. This is not to say that radiocarbon dates can be set aside when inconvenient, just that the testing needs to be done carefully. There are a few factors that can throw radiocarbon testing off. One of them is the environment, or even diet, of the person being tested.

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Animals and plants on land get their radiocarbon 14 from the atmosphere. Carbon 14 is being continually formed in the atmosphere, at a specific rate. Marine animals and plants get a portion of their carbon 14 from the ocean, which has a very different level of carbon 14 than the atmosphere. Plants and animals from the ocean, or animals which get most of their food from the ocean, will always seem older, in carbon 14 testing, than purely terrestrial creatures. In these initial tests, scientists were only testing for ballpark results—making sure the bones weren’t from the fourteenth or nineteenth centuries—to make sure their investigation was on track. To get the best test results, they had to collect the best samples. So which were the best samples?

In the end, they picked samples from four sets of remains, all of which had odd crescent-shaped grooves in the line of their teeth. These grooves were pipe-facets, the depression that eventually gets worked into teeth when someone holds a pipe in their mouth for a good portion of every day. The facets were evidence of a particular type of clay pipe. Technically, these pipes could have been available around 1620, when pipes started coming into Scotland. It took a while for the tradition to spread, and it wasn’t until 1640 that smoking a clay pipe would have been widespread. The radiocarbon dating for the samples with pipe-facets led to an estimated date between 1625 and 1660.

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The researchers at Durham University could conclude, after two years and many different avenues of research, that the bodies they uncovered during the construction project were those of Scottish soldiers from the Battle of Dunbar, buried in a mass grave. They may be doing more research on the bones and their origins, but eventually they will rebury them with the religious service that they deem most likely represents the religion that the soldiers practiced during their life.

[Source: Human Remains Found at Palace Green, The Identification]

Images: Durham University / North News

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