Medieval cemetery unearthed in Cambridge

Clearing the ground for the building of university accommodation revealed the incredible find...
16 May 2022

Interview with 

Katie Haworth, University of Cambridge


Under the site of the new Croft Gardens accomodation in Cambridge lay one of the best archaeological finds in the UK for a long time. Katie Haworth, from the University of Cambridge, explained how she is studying these remains to Julia Ravey...

News Reel - Addressing the United Nations today, president Zelensky accused Moscow of war crimes. Some breaking news, the UN human rights office has issued a damning statement describing the war in Ukraine as a horror story of violations against civilians. They have reported finding hundreds of bodies and mass graves in the town of Bucha. Russia denies doing this, but there's skepticism from a watching world.

Julia - War crimes. Violations of international law, such as the targeted killing of civilians, which could lead to the prosecution of those responsible. Proving a crime has been committed in these circumstances is a long process and can be incredibly tough. But science can provide vital evidence, specifically archaeology and anthropology. These are fields often associated with historical findings or learning about ancient life. But when applied within forensics, they can help solve crime. Through the use of context, evidence and examination, both disciplines can tell us about who individuals are and potentially help us understand what happened to them. Even if they lived a very long time ago. I'm standing right now in front of, well, pretty much a building site, to be honest. This is Croft Gardens and these are new college accommodation for Kings College in Cambridge. To look at, you wouldn't think this was a really interesting archaeological site, but last year, when this site was being cleared for these buildings, there was a cemetery found under this plot. This was a cemetery with 62 plots containing 69 bodies. And these people were thought to have lived between the fifth and sixth century. Katie Haworth from King's college, Cambridge is now studying who these people were.

Katie - I think it's really important to say that cemeteries are quite different from other kinds of archaeology because often archaeology is the remains of things that aren't intentional deposits. Whereas a cemetery is a very carefully structured space. There's a lot of decision making about how to deal with the death of a, presumably, valued community member. And I think behind all these decisions, we can start to understand something about the community as a whole and how social relationships might have played into those decisions that are made.

Julia - I think it's so interesting how you can take this static scene of a cemetery and then try and piece together what it might have been like to be alive during that time within this community.

Katie - It's so fascinating. And it's drawing together so many strands of evidence -  analysing the bones, analysing the spatial layout of the cemetery, the objects that are there, unpicking the DNA - which should tell us more about their health on one side, but also the relatedness of our population.

Julia - Can this finding of the cemetery - of the bodies themselves - tell us anything about how these individuals may have died?

Katie - We don't have a huge amount of evidence to say how people died. Often we're working with just bones, but we can pull out a good amount of information from that. One of the studies that's being looked at is an examination of evidence for plague. But I think for most people, it would've been quite a difficult life. People would've suffered a great deal with periods of stress in life. In many cases that is probably what's resulted in death, but we're just not seeing it represented in the bones.


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