Westminster Burials

Work to replace a toilet block at Westminster Abbey has turned up 50 medieval skeletons, including a child and a headless man. But whose are they? And how did they get there?

So here’s a story that is a perfect reminder of just how complicated archaeology can be. Just because you find something somewhere, that doesn’t mean that’s where it originally came to rest. Figuring all this out is just part of the archaeological jigsaw puzzle.

Take, for example, the recent case of the builders who were getting rid of an old toilet block at Westminster Abbey to make space for the first new tower to be built on the site in over 300 years.

Now, it’s hardly a stretch to assume that if you dig a hole near Westminster Abbey, you’ll probably find a body. But the bodies of fifty men and one child under the abbey’s toilet?

Archaeologists carrying out the excavations say the bodies date to the 11th or early 12th century and that at least some of the men were probably witness to the events of 1066.

Westminster Burials 2

Some of the skulls found among the footings of Westminster Abbey’s south transept have square holes left by the pickaxes of 13th-century workman.

The strange thing is that while some of the bones were in chalk lined graves, others were in coffins, and others were just bones, densely packed under the abbey’s drainage pipes like a carefully stacked log pile. But this was no crypt or catacomb, so how the hell did these burials come to be stacked up like this in such an odd location?

Well, it seems that these weren’t the first builders to discover the burials. It turns out that builders having been moving these bones around for nearly a thousand years.

According to Paw Jorgensen from Pre-Construct Archaeology, the bodies were originally interred in a small burial ground attached to a church built by Edward the Confessor between 1042 and 1090, and where Edward was eventually buried. This church was itself built on top of a 7th century church.

In 1245, Henry III demolished Edward’s church to make way for his own grandiose construction project – that of Westminster Abbey. Henry III’s builders dug up the land, including the burial ground, and reburied the bodies they found under the Westminster Abbey’s mason’s construction yard.

Several centuries later, Victorian workmen were carrying out some restoration works, disturbing some of these reburials. Among them was a stone coffin blocking the spot where they were supposed to install a new window to light the lower chapter house. So they moved it and incorporated it into the new brick wall. But, it seems, not before they gave into their own curiosity.

The Victorian’s jimmied open the lid – perhaps hoping for some valuable objects. It seems that in their disappointment, they nabbed the man’s skull instead –  when the current round of workers re-opened the coffin, they found the rest of the skeleton, but the head was gone.

The current workers found other burials too. Some of the skeletons were in graves lined with chalk blocks – typical of the late Anglo-Saxon or early Norman period. There was also a child in a wooden coffin.

Those working on the construction project expect to find more bones as the rest of the lavatory block is removed. No doubt they too will reburied, only to be dug up yet again by construction workers in a couple of hundred years’ time.

Always wanted to try archaeology?

DigVentures crowdfunds archaeological projects that everyone can be part of, in the UK and overseas. With help from people all over the world, we investigate the past and publish our discoveries online for free. Support one of our digs and you can choose to watch our discoveries as they happen, or roll up your sleeves and excavate alongside our team!

Choose a dig

Maiya Pina-Dacier

Head of Community at DigVentures, Maiya digs with a trowel in one hand, and a Twitter feed in the other. She reports on all our discoveries live from the trenches, and keeps our Site Hut full of the latest archaeology news. Got a story? Just drop her a line...

Full Author Profile +