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What happened to the Scottish soldiers found in a mass grave in Durham?

a photo of a lower part of a skull

Pipe-smoking wear in the teeth of a young adult male aged 18-25 years old. © Jeff Veitch, Durham University

What happened to the Scottish soldiers found in a mass grave beneath Durham Cathedral? A new exhibition reveals their story

When the remains of a group of skeletons were unearthed in two mass burial sites in Durham city centre in 2013, it offered a stark reminder of one of the most brutal and bloody battles of the 17th Century Civil Wars.

It also left archaeologists with a jigsaw puzzle of evidence to assemble in order to identify the slain warriors whose bodies had lain undiscovered for nearly four centuries.

Using a mixture of statistical and isotope analysis of strontium, oxygen and lead from tooth enamel samples and radiocarbon dating – alongside historical evidence from the time – experts eventually came to the conclusion that the bodies were Scottish soldiers from the Battle of Dunbar.

Now their evidence – including a remarkable facial reconstruction of one of the soldiers – can be explored by members of the public in a new exhibition at the Palace Green Library of the University of Durham.

© Face Lab LJMU

side vie of a reconstructed skeleton showing skin and muscles

Side view of the muscles and skin. © Face Lab, LJMU.

Bodies of Evidence: How Science Unearthed Durham’s Dark Secret, shows how the latest scientific techniques revealed the soldiers’ story; how they lived, why they died and what became of those who survived.

Professor Chris Gerrard, of Durham University’s Department of Archaeology, says “the remains of up to 28 individuals” were excavated in 2013 dig.

“It was the start of many months of research which led to us identifying them as Scottish soldiers who were captured by Cromwell’s army after the Battle of Dunbar and imprisoned in Durham Cathedral and Castle.

“This put an end to almost 400 years of mystery surrounding what became of those soldiers who died here in Durham.”

The 1650 Battle of Dunbar is said to have lasted less than an hour. Following a tactical blunder by the Scottish commander, Sir David Leslie, the English Parliamentarian army under Cromwell’s command outflanked and crushed the Scottish Covenanting army who supported the claims of Charles II to the Scottish throne.

Although the exact figures are not known, it is thought between one and two thousand Scottish soldiers were killed and of the 4-5,000 prisoners taken – 1,700 of them died of malnutrition, disease and cold on the 100 mile march from the south east of Scotland to Durham. One there they were imprisoned in Durham Cathedral and Castle.

a photo of a skull submerged in soil with gloved hands brushing soil away

Janet Beveridge an Archaeologist from Durham University Archaeological services carrying out an excavation on a human burial site near Durham University’s Palace Green library. Image courtesy of North News and Pictures

a photo of a woman in a white coat holding the lower part of a jawbone

Dr Anwen Caffell, of the university, with some of the remains © Richard Rayner / North News and Pictures

Around 3,000 Scottish soldiers were eventually incarcerated, at a time when the Cathedral was empty and abandoned, its Dean and Chapter having been evicted and worship suppressed by order of Cromwell, as was the case with all English Cathedrals at that time.

The exhibition revisits both the battle and its aftermath and explains how Durham University archaeologists used analysis of the soldiers’ remains alongside historical documents from the period to establish details about their lives including where they were born, what their health and diets were like and why they died.

“Come face to face with a young man who was aged between 18 and 25 when he diedin Durham”

The exhibition also examines what life was like for soldiers and civilians during the civil wars in the 1600s. The stories of survivors of the battle are also unearthed, including around 150 individuals who were sent to the USA to work as indentured servants, in saw mills. Many of these soldiers have descendants alive today.

Historical records also show that some prisoners were ordered to labour in the North East of England in the salt-pan, linen and coal mining industries. Others were sent to help drain The Fens in the East of England or to undertake military service in Ireland and France.

Visitors to the exhibition will also encounter a 3D depiction of the face of one of the soldiers, created by researchers at Face Lab, part of Liverpool John Moores University, using one of the excavated skulls along with evidence provided by the Durham University archaeology team. Face Lab specialises in the reconstruction of faces for archaeological and forensic purposes.

“This is the first opportunity visitors to the museum will have to come face to face with this young man who we now know was aged between 18 and 25 when he died here in Durham,” says Julie Biddlecombe-Brown, Curator at Palace Green Library.

a photo of a human skeletons laid out on a table

Dr Anwen Caffell of Durham University with some of the remains. © Richard Rayner / North News and Pictures

a photo of a pipe against a black background

Part of a 17 Century clay pipe similar to those that would have been smoked by the individuals buried at Palace Green (credit Jeff Veitch, Durham University)

The exhibition reveals how the multi-disciplinary team at Durham University pieced together evidence to establish details about the identities, lives and appearance of the soldiers, who were imprisoned and died in Durham.

Two individuals had crescent-shaped areas of wear and tear called ‘pipe facets’ – evidence that they smoked clay pipes. Clay pipes became widely available in Scotland around 1620 and in common use after 1640 – helping to date some of the human remains.

“These were real men who lost their lives and their place in history and through this exhibition we want to tell their story and give them back their voices,” adds Biddlecombe-Brown.

An estimated 1,700 prisoners from the battle died and were buried in Durham. Experts believe many of them could still lie in other mass graves beneath what is now the University of Durham, which in the mid 17th century was still open ground.

Bodies of Evidence: How Science Unearthed Durham’s Dark Secret is at the Palace Green Library, Durham University from June 9 – October 7 2018.

For more detail on the fate of the soldiers of the Battle of Dunbar see the Scottish Soldiers Project on the Durham University website. 


Palace Green Library

Durham, Durham

Founded in 1833 and occupying listed buildings within the Durham World Heritage site, the Palace Green Library of Durham University houses archives, early printed books and other special collections. The Wolfson Gallery Located on the first floor of Palace Green Library, the Gallery opened in 2011 after undergoing a £2.3m…

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