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Bone Detectives start with Thanet’s Bronze Age secrets….

I have just watched the first episode of Bone Detectives: Britain’s Buried Secrets, featuring Dr Tori Herridge and the delightful Raksha Dave, whom I remember from Time Team, but who is now much in TV evidence. In this new series we’re promised episodes from different periods and different places all over Britain, but this first one was from the Isle of Thanet.

Thanet, of course, is no longer and island, but it was still detached from the rest of Kent as late as Tudor times, when the Wantsum Channel had to be crossed by boat. Earlier than that, it was broad enough to be a strait.

It is suggested that in the Bronze Age, and probably before then too, Britain was thought to be a sacred island of the dead, and seemed to shine out of the sea with its pure white cliffs. The name Thanet may be derived from a goddess of death (I didn’t quite catch the name) and the Wantsum Channel might have been the Styx? Whatever, to get to Thanet, one had to cross water.

The Thanet place of interest in this first episode was Cliffsend, where a housing estate is now but early in this decade there was only large sandy field. The only thing remaining from the field is a single mature tree. There is, apparently, no evidence at all of people actually living here during the Bronze Age, but they did come to what became Cliffsend in order to honour the dead.

When the present housing estate was due to be built, archaeological excavations took place, to investigate the area before it became impossible. What was found astonished everyone. There was a many-barrowed cemetery from around 2000 BC, each barrow about 20m in diameter. There was no sign at all of true settlement, but a lot of broken pottery, animal bones, broken quern stones and so on, which suggested many feasts and ceremonies which must have been to do with death and the dead. Oh, no! Not the dreaded rituals again, complete with processional ways! But in this instance I think the conclusion is probably correct.

The dig became exceedingly interesting and original when it came to a mysterious pit, some 50m NE of the cemetery. Human skeletons were found in it, with right at the bottom, those of two neonatal lambs. Then, on top of them, was the carefully arranged skeleton of a very elderly woman. She was on her left side, curled up tightly, holding a small piece of chalk to her lips in her left hand. Her right hand was more extended, with her index finger pointing toward one of the nearby barrows. There were two more neonatal lambs in her lap, and she had been killed by sword blows to her head.

Now, in the Bronze Age swords were very rare, and probably for ceremonial use only, which suggests that the manner of her death was sacrificial. And not necessarily that she was unwilling to die, because her finger pointing to the barrow might well indicate a plea to the dead for their help with some situation then besetting the area. Her life might well have been the price to pay. Which is guesswork, of course, but there has to be some reason for the way she points. And what is the piece of chalk to her lips all about? That must remain a mystery.

Anyway, the old lady and the four lambs were not alone in the pit, for there were four more remains, two teenaged girls, two juvenile girls, and a mature man, although he was only a partial skeleton and a little distance away, so may not have been really connection with the others.

Some of the bones were sent for testing, and it turned out they were older than the old woman! How very, very strange. Now, if I tell you more, it will spoil the programme’s “punch lines”, so you will have to watch it to find out. But I do recommend this first episode. It bodes well for the rest of the series. You can watch the series on Channel Four at 8 pm on Saturdays, but also find out more on Goodreads

My final comment is on the programme’s sponsor, Tilda (rice), which declares it’s proud to help promote “escapism on 4”. Um, escapism? I’m not sure that a documentary about Bronze Age burials comes under that heading!

Richard and Greyfriars both lost in Leicester—and found again….!

Here are Historic England’s ten top archaeological discoveries of the decade.

Needless to say, the discovery of Richard III’s remains figures high on the list. He’d been thought to have been buried in Leicester Greyfriars…or maybe thrown into the River Soar! But no, Greyfriars was the place. However, what I didn’t know was that Greyfriars itself had also been lost for 400 years as well!


Recently, archaeologists working at the Tower of London discovered the remains of two people, an adult woman age 35-45 and a child of about seven. Proper modern carbon dating has taken place and it is determined that the pair are from between 1450-1550. Osteological examination shows no signs of trauma on the bones, although the woman had spinal arthritis. Neither of them were particularly well-nourished and showed signs of having suffered illness during their lives.

I was most pleased to find out about this discovery, as it is another bit of proof that the Tower, a site occupied since before the Roman era, is full of human remains from a multitude of periods, and therefore identification of the ‘Bones in the Urn’ at Westminster as the ‘Princes in the Tower’ is extremely unsafe-in fact, highly unlikely. I have had circular arguments recently with certain hard-headed folk who  still cannot believe that it is, in fact, VERY common to find pre-modern human skeletons anywhere in the U.K. (As example, the housing estate next to me is on a Roman cemetery which in turn overlies a Bronze Age one with burials stretching back over a period of 1000 years. There is a dead Beaker Era man still lying under the local tennis court!))

The new finds at the Tower not only are welcome because they show that burials within the bailey were common but because they also show that there was a substantial number of ordinary people who lived, worked and died (of natural causes) within the castle precinct.

Another frequent argument Denialists seems to occasionally put forth is that  there were hardly any people living there in 1483, other than Richard and the Princes! Yes, folks, some people seriously believe no one lived in the Tower at all at that time,  save wicked Uncle  Richard, waving a set of jangling keys  (the only set of course), as he slips past zombified guards to guide such improbable characters as ‘Black Will Slaughter’ to smother the Princes….

In fact, there was a household of some 150 people at the Tower in Richard’s day and a number of people with access to the various important areas,  which makes the story of the Princes’ supposed burial even more silly–as there is no way a few men could dig a ten foot hole UNDER a staircase, deposit two bodies, block the shaft with stones and not have someone out of 150 people notice a thing!

Of course, no doubt there are some out there this very minute trying to work this new archaeological discovery into Richard’s story, doing mental gymnastics as to how they can find him responsible for these two new sets of remains! I can just imagine how it might go–Hmmm, let me see–do we really know what happened to “Jane Shore“? Could it be a cast-off mistress and child (one of the improbable seven proposed by Alison Weir)? Or is the child really one of the “Princes” (one of, oh, at least five so far.) Maybe Richard really killed Edward of Warwick too, making that nice Henry Tudor completely blameless in his murder! Maybe the woman is Queen Anne who he poisoned (hence the ill health) and he really dumped her here and never buried her in Westminster at all! Or,  maybe the female is just another of Richard’s ‘many victims’ since he got the taste for blood at St Alban’s (aged 3) but one who had a sex change! 

(OK, the last is completely and deliberately preposterous, even for a Denialist, but you get my drift.)

Heh, if I was of the same bent, maybe I would start putting it about that the child was poor Henry Pole the Younger, who was locked away in the Tower in 1538 and never seen again. He was of royal descent, being the grandson of Margaret Pole, daughter  of George of Clarence, but for some reason he never gets as much, or rather, any sympathy, unlike the Princes with their maudlin Millais painting (one figure of which was modelled on a young girl–an interesting coincidence, as there is, in fact, some fairly compelling evidence that one of the sets of  the Bones in the Urn DOES have  female characteristics. But only DNA testing can tell the sex of juveniles for certain, and it is unlikely we’ll ever get to test those bones; a great pity as the MTDNA line from Elizabeth Woodville was finally traced by the late John Ashdown-Hill.) 

Of course, Henry Pole the Younger was not seven when he vanished, he was a teenager, so the newly-discovered child is not him (and one article says the new juvenile may be female too), but believing these bones to be Henry’s would only  be slightly more ludicrous than wholeheartedly believing that undated, unsexed remains from under a stone stair, ten feet down into the Roman layer, near several graveyards, mixed with animal bones, with no verification as to exactly where/how they were found since they were discovered in the reign of Charles II, are Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury.

Two articles on the latest finds are below:

New Bones Found at The Tower

Live Science article Bones in the Tower

Britain’s top burial sites?

This Sun article, which originally confused Richard’s Leicester with Henry I’s Reading, lists what they consider to be Britain’s top burial sites, although there is no detail on the supposed “Princes” in that urn, especially now that there is evidence to test the remains.

Are there any others you might have included?

Richard III’s Prehistoric Foremother?

Recently I came across this fascinating blogpost by an archaeologist called Katharina, who was working on a Bronze Age burial site in Austria. The skeletons her team excavated have recently been DNA tested–and one of them carried the maternal haplogroup J1c2, which is part of the group to which Richard belonged.

Richard’s Bronze Age foremother?

Now there are differences in their DNA sequences; Richard has a rare mutation, making his exact group J1c2c3. So far, only about a dozen people from all worldwide testing sites have been found to carry this exact mutation. None as far as I know, have been found in continental Europe, so it looks as if the rare mutation occurred recently in his maternal line–either with Cecily Neville, his mother, Joan Beaufort, grandmother, Katherine Swynford, his great-grandmother, or Katherine’s mother, who was a migrant to England.

Haplogroup J, called ‘Jasmine’ by geneticist Bryan Sykes, is thought to be one of the last female haplogroups to enter Europe, first appearing in the Near East around Syria. It is a ‘sister’ to Mtdna haplogroup T, with both  groups having split off from  a foremother carrying the Haplogroup JT, which is not commonly found in Europe but still can be  found in the Near and Middle East. (I am Haplogroup T2b4 ,’Tara’, by the way, so part of the ‘sister’ group.) J and T are both considered, in particular,  hallmarks of the Neolithic revolution (agriculture)  in Europe and maybe even associated with the spread of Indo-European languages, although there were probably some earlier people with these haplogroup in the Mesolithic as well.  Today J and T are considered mid-size DNA groups, with about 12% of Europeans carrying some form of J and 9% carrying T.

All the people with haplogroup J will share a common maternal ancestor with Richard at some point…but it might be well be a 100 generations ago or even earlier! Obviously there are different clades of each haplogroup, each with different mutations, which show where the groups split and diversified, and hence some people with MTdna J will be closer  matches to Richard than others, the closest being those who have that elusive ‘3’, who all seem to come from Richard’s close family. (I myself am in the same maternal group as the last Tsar of Russia but my mutations are quite different to his; I’m more closely related to the outlaw Jesse James! And Ozzy Osborne! Still, they are all my relatives on some kind of  remote level, though!)

It’s quite fascinating to be able to look into the deepest past and see where we all came from, and how interrelated we really all are.



Another Car Park, Another Find

What is it about carparks? They seem to hide a wealth of archaeology.

My own local one may not have held a king, but it certainly contained burials–a handful of   Bronze Age people who had been cremated and buried in long-vanished barrows strung out  along what once was a prominent  ridge. Several thousand years later their graves were desecrated by Anglo-Saxons, who inserted their own inhumation burials into the earlier mounds–one of them taking  a stunning amethyst bead into the afterlife.

The latest famous carpark find is from Switzerland, however, rather than Britain, and it is probably the oldest by far. It is the five thousand year old door of a neolithic hut, rather fine in its craftmanship, with a prominent hinge still existing–not at all what most people imagine when they hear the word ‘neolithic.’ It was discovered  while making, rather than digging up, a NEW carpark in Zurich, in an area where there were a number of ancient lake villages. It wasn’t the only door found either–others had been located in the area in previous digs, but it was the best preserved and most ‘modern’ to look at.


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