Skeletal remains from the cemetary of St Nicholas Shambles, City of London

William White

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Two hundred and thirty-four articulated skeletons from the early medieval parish cemetery of St Nicholas Shambles, off Newgate Street in the City of London, were excavated by the Museum of London in 1975-7 (sitecode: GPO75). They are dated archaeologically to the 11th and 12th centuries. Six grave-types were identified, though the majority were in simple graves. The presence of coffins could not be established with certainty, though fragments of wood were present in many graves.

Demographic and osteological data were compared with other medieval populations. Ranges and means of stature were consistent with comparable groups. The skulls provide a cranial form intermediate between Anglo-Saxon dolicephaly (‘long- headed’) and the later medieval bracycephaly (‘round-headed’). Certain cranial and dental characteristics may suggest family subgroups in the population.

Evidence of disease on the bones was infrequent. Reconstruction of the dentition permitted an assessment to be made of the general health of the population. Nutritional disease in the form of osteoporosis did occur, bone defects being caused by anaemia possibly resulting from an iron-deficient diet. Osteoarthritis was found in many skeletons as a degenerative disease affecting most of the joints, but especially the vertebral column. One form of spinal degenerative disorder was four times more common in men than in women and may have been related to lifting activities. Cancerous tumours were few and not malignant. No evidence of infections such as tuberculosis was observed. Paget's disease was absent. In general few injuries suffered during life were apparent and fractures were relatively uncommon. Individual cases of note included a middle-aged man with a badly affected right arm, with a shoulder joint damaged through illness contracted probably during childhood. A younger man exhibited a developmental disorder that had interfered with the normal growth of his limbs. A girl with her left leg missing had survived to be a teenager, and another, tall and probably overweight, had been left with a pronounced limp. Of particular note was the partial skeleton of a woman who died in childbirth. The high incidence of certain traits suggested that many of the skeletons were of related individuals. Analysis of the cemetery produced evidence for possible family groupings.

In advance of detailed publication of the excavation of the church and the topographical setting of the cemetery, a provisional discussion is offered of the various grave-types and possible evidence of grave-side ritual.

[ Special Paper 9 (1988); abstract as published]