A skeleton being excavated from a mass grave. A person with gloves is lifting some of the bones with a small metal tool.
One of the Scottish Soliders being excavated

An Archaeological Case Study: The Scottish Soliders

In November 2013, in a small corner of the picturesque city of Durham, some building work was underway to turn what was an overgrown courtyard into a cafe. Due to the site’s proximity to the magnificent cathedral, the digging was carried out under the watchful eye of archaeologists. These excavations clipped the corner of what turned out to be a mass grave.

A view of Durham cathedral and castle and part of the city with the River Weir in the foreground

Skeletal remains were carefully excavated in somewhat cramped and inclement conditions. It became clear during excavation that bodies had been placed on top of one another, in different orientations and some were face down. This grave did not represent the careful placement of bodies - instead, they looked as though they’d been thrown in (see below). Was it the result of a pandemic such as the Black Death?

An archaeologist dressed in high visibility rainproof clothes lies on his front on piles of soil whilst reaching under a wall to excavate

A black square showing the skeletons as stick man type line drawings to show the orientation of the arms and legs and the way in which some bodies were on top of others

Once back in the lab, the bones were analysed and it was determined that they represented a minimum number of 17 people. It is likely that there were many more in the grave, but it had been truncated by other building work and individuals could only be recovered from a small section of it.

The mode of burial was unusual, as it denotes a lack of care. Analysis in the lab revealed some other interesting features of the assemblage. The skeletons were mostly teenagers and young adults. All were male. This was no random cross-section of a population such as we would expect from a catastrophic disease epidemic. In addition, the skeletons also showed signs of adversity in childhood, with evidence of poor nutrition and poor dental health. Finally, there were linear scratches on some of the bones indicative of rodent gnawing (as the photograph below shows). This again suggests a lack of care in burial and perhaps that the grave was left open, or the burials were only shallow. So who were these people and why were they buried with so little apparent care?

A long bone annotated with a red line to highlight a series of linear scratch marks on both of them

Radiocarbon dating indicated that the burials dated to the English Civil war in AD 1650. Stable isotope evidence suggested that at least some of the individuals were not from the UK, whilst others could have been, but were not local to Durham, expressing instead values consistent with Scotland.

The scientific evidence was integrated with historical research and it was revealed that these individuals were, in fact, soldiers (prisoners of war) from the Battle of Dunbar in 1650. The Scottish Army was defeated by Cromwell’s forces in Dunbar, Scotland. The Scottish soldiers were captured and approximately 4000 of them were forced to march from Dunbar to Durham. Many died on the journey from hunger and disease. Once in Durham, they were locked in the cathedral as prisoners of war, where many more died. The bodies in the mass grave represent a small sample of these individuals.

What this case study tells us about the problems and potentials of interpreting mass graves:

  • The haphazard body position and the presence of buildings over some of the graves made excavating individual bodies challenging.

  • Unfortunately, due to the constraints of excavation and the truncation of the grave, there was mixing of body parts from different individuals. This compromised the evidence because it meant that a minimum number of individuals (MNI) had to be calculated and this represents an under-estimate.

  • Because all of the individuals were male and many were a similar age, this also made it difficult to assign some bones to particular bodies. This is a common problem in bodies recovered from mass graves associated with warfare.

  • Skeletal analysis revealed a lot about the early lives of these young men and even their habits (e.g. habitual smokers using clay pipes).

  • Stable isotope analysis revealed that they were non-local, but had values consistent with Scotland and further afield. This helped confirm the individuals’ identities.

  • DNA analysis, in this example, will not establish precisely who these individuals were because it is too far back in time and it is not possible to establish a close relative to match against the samples from the skeletons. However, genomic analysis can reveal features such as hair and eye colour.

  • The contextual data (e.g. historical information) was essential for establishing the identity of these people. It’s the same in a modern forensic context, where local intelligence/witness testimony, as well as documentation, is important for interpretation.

Image divided into four quadrants, showing stages in the facial reconstruction of one of the Scottish Soldiers. Three images show a digital scan of the skull and the addition of anatomical features such as muscles. The final images shows a reconstructed face of a red-haired young man

For more details of this fascinating story and the lives of those Scottish soldiers who survived the ordeal, please sign up for the Scottish Soldiers course on Future Learn linked below in the ‘SEE ALSO’ section. You can find out additional information on Durham University’s website devoted to the Scottish soldiers (in the ‘SEE ALSO’ section).

Further Reading

Gerrard, C. J. et al. (2018) Lost Lives, New Voices: Unlocking the Stories of the Scottish Soldiers at the Battle of Dunbar 1650. Oxbow Books

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This article is from the free online course:

Forensic Archaeology and Anthropology

Durham University