Archaeology Live! 2013 – Day 3 (from charnel to bath)

Today was the (sort of) last day of the conference, although there wasn’t any conference sessions. The Museum of London (MoL) and English Heritage (EH) opened up two London sites for us to look at. Both of them are rarely open so it was a lovely treat for the attendees. Well, the ones (like me) who booked in early enough as places were limited.

First up, it was a trip across to Spitalfields and the charnel house that was part of the Medieval Spitalfields cemetery. Finding it was the first hurdle to overcome. The entire area was redeveloped in the 1990’s and a wealth of information about the Roman and subsequent medieval area was unearthed.

Development then took place over the top of it all, resulting in big open area, bordered by shops called Bishop’s Square (just around the corner from Liverpool Street station). The charnel house has a thick glass roof so anyone can look down on it but we were allowed into the space beneath the square to get close up and personal with it.

A charnel house was were bones were stored after being dug up in cemeteries when new bodies required the space. This is more interesting than it seems at first.

In Christian burials, the righteous are buried with their feet facing east. The reason for this is so that when Judgement Day happens, the dead can just sit up, facing the heavenly host. Interestingly, some priests were buried the other way around so they would be facing their parishioners instead.

Anyway, this is all well and good (if a bit stupid) but, what I want to know is what’s going to happen to the bones in the charnel houses? Given they were bits and pieces, generally just lobbed into a big room, I reckon they’re going to have problems sitting up facing anything.

I can just imagine some poor peasant, suddenly waking up with the blast from the angel’s trumpets and God’s booming voice to find, instead of having front row seats for the apocalypse, that she can only see the insides of a stone building, buried deep underground. I reckon it might give them pause to thought at all the time they wasted believing the stupid priests who told them it was such a good idea!

Still, that’s not my concern. I don’t need to spend too much time discussing the stupidity of religion…especially with the Catholic church doing such a good job on their own at the moment. Plus there’s no more bones in the Spitalfields charnel house to worry about.

This is not exactly true. There is a big cow bone in the charnel house, used to fill up a hole in the original wall at some stage.

The perfect fit

This is just one part of the amazing mish mash of repair work to the fabric of the charnel house. Where it started off with beautiful masonry (some with master mason’s marks still visible), when it came time to make repairs, anything was used. From cow bones to lumps of flint, from Roman tile to plain ordinary rocks found lying around. A wonderful example of recycling if ever I saw one.

The masons were paid per piece and would personally mark them

Possibly the most remarkable thing I saw at the charnel house was John (Old Vole of the Weasels). We both looked wide eyed at each other, exclaiming, almost in unison “What are you doing here?

It transpires that we were both at the conference and didn’t manage to see each other. We discussed where we were both sat and how we had managed to avoid each other. It was quite bizarre. Mind you, being invisible probably helped. Though I’m surprised I didn’t spot him.

Looking down into the middle of the charnel house

Having completely exhausted the charnel house, it was time to pop back to the flat for lunch before heading back into town for the visit to the Roman bath just off Lower Thames Street.

The Roman bath house was one of the first ‘proper’ London excavations. It was originally discovered in 1848 when the building of the Coal Exchange was started. It was decided that a proper archaeological excavation should take place and all care and attention was devoted to preserving it. This was very rare! Eventually, the excavation led to the setting up of all manner of rules and regulations concerning archaeological sites in London. It is now looked after by MoL.

The most interesting thing about the bath house is that it did not belong to a high status, single owner. The latest interpretation is that it was a bath house attached to a rather low class inn. Similar to a shared bathroom in a small hotel.

The sub-Travelodge room

When someone in our group asked whether it was as low class as a Travelodge. Our guide said it was far lower than that, referring to it as ‘sub-Travelodge’.

Apart from there being no high status finds anywhere near or in the bath house, the plain tiled floor of the main room is a bit of a give away. Most private baths had ornate mosaics while this one didn’t even have a simple border, just plain terracotta tesserae.

Part of the Roman baths

The excavation is in the basement of building and not very easy to see at the moment. There’s been problems with water seepage (it’s very close to the river) and traffic pollution (Lower Thames Street is right above it and very busy) so the site is always being carefully watched.

There are plans to make the place more accessible for visitors by putting in permanent walkways, etc but this all takes money so maybe some time in the future.

I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed today and, the entire weekend conference. I’m going to get my name down for next year’s as soon as I can!

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2 Responses to Archaeology Live! 2013 – Day 3 (from charnel to bath)

  1. Josephine Cook says:

    Well what a great weekend you had and yes you had better put your name down as soon as possible.
    love mum x


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