By Martha Bozic
On 18th May 2018, the remains of between seventeen and twenty-eight 17th century Scottish soldiers were reburied in Durham City. The bodies were discovered in 2013 during the construction of a new café for Palace Green Library, a rare opportunity to dig beneath the grounds of the UNESCO world heritage site.
Speaking to Palatinate, Professor Chris Gerrard, of Durham University’s Department of Archaeology, believes that “the bodies were probably uncovered on at least two or three occasions before this”. It would explain the many stories about the mysterious fate of hundreds of Scottish soldiers imprisoned in Durham Cathedral during the Battle of Dunbar in the English Civil War.
Despite the legends, however, when the two mass graves were discovered little could be said for certain about the bodies they contained. It was a laboratory analysis of the (mostly incomplete) skeletons that suggested the bodies were of male origin and aged between 13 and 25 at time of death. This “very specific population profile” was what led Gerrard and his colleagues to believe that they were the bodies of soldiers, as opposed to victims of plague – another potential reason for a mass burial.
As well as finding their ages “accurate to within a few months”, the team were also able to discover the likely place of origin of the soldiers, using an isotopic analysis of their bones. Gerrard explains that “isotopes…absorbed into your body from what you eat and drink” can be used to narrow down the location, for example, of the local well from which the soldiers would have drunk. By analysing the oxygen and strontium signatures in the teeth of the bodies, the team found that the majority came from Scotland.
Already, this suggested a link to the long-lost soldiers of the Battle of Dunbar, but further profiling was possible. Initially, radiocarbon dating was done on the bones, which “give[s] you a very broad date” explains Gerrard, establishing the remains as dating back to the 17th century. The process involves comparing samples of radioactive carbon isotopes from the bodies to a standard sample, to determine the proportion of isotopes that have decayed.
To obtain a closer estimate, the team noted unusual markings on the teeth of some of the bodies which suggested a habit of smoking clay pipes. Evidence that this wasn’t common in Scotland before 1620 helped the team to further narrow down the date of the burial, which they were then able to establish more clearly with a second round of radiocarbon dating on the teeth themselves.
One of the things that makes this case so special, Gerrard says, is that they were able to obtain “a very complete biography” of the soldiers, using a range of specialist techniques which have not previously been used in combination. Additionally, the team were able to build on and develop new techniques as part of the project, making it truly groundbreaking.
Gerrard is keen to emphasise that there is more to the story than the soldiers who died, despite their crucial role in the study. He states that around “1300 people” survived, with some returning home and others travelling as far as America. This has led to a second, perhaps more surprising legacy in the form of Hollywood actors John Cryer and Kate Upton, who it turns out are both “10% Durham prisoner” – the former recently appearing on the American version of Who Do You Think You Are?
While he admits it is likely that there are further graves beneath Palace Green, Gerrard says that they will “not [be] disturbing any more bodies”, instead following up related projects. These include a MOOC and potential documentary, as well as an exhibition at Palace Green library which will then travel around the country, telling the story of the discovery.
Alongside this, the Newcastle based theatre company Cap-a-Pie are going on tour from Dunbar to Durham with Woven Bones, a new production based on the stories of the Scottish soldiers. They may have died in ambiguity nearly 400 years ago, but they have certainly not been forgotten.
Photograph: Durham University