Sunday, 12 August 2012

Hythe's Crypt of Skulls

I took a trip to one of Shepway's more unusual attractions today; the Ossuary at St Leonard's Church in Hythe. I'll warn you now that there are going to be loads of photos in this post, because I was absolutely fascinated.

The collection of skulls and bones is one of only two in the country and is by far the largest (the other one is Rothwell Holy Trinity in Northamptonshire) containing the remains of about 2,000 people.

There are various tales about the origins of the collection, including; men who fell in the Battle of Hastings, Danish Pirates slain in a battle (my favourite version!), Anglo-Saxons killed in battle or victims of the Black Death. The latter seems most unlikely as bodies of Black Death victims would have been disposed of rather hastily!

The most likely explanation is that these are the remains of local people who had been buried in the graveyard, and were dug up in the 13th century when the church was extended.

We were greeted at the Crypt door by the most lovely, jolly, little old lady, who didn't seem at all bothered to be surrounded by this slightly macabre collection, and who proceeded to enthusiastically tell us about the history of the bones, the research done by various University staff members (cheerfully referred to as "those 'Ologists")  and point out some of the more interesting skulls.

The crypt contains a mixture of male, female and children's skulls.

The sexes can be told apart by the brow and forehead area, the females (left skull) will be smooth above the eye sockets and up the forehead, whilst the male skulls (right) will have projecting brows.

This one had a tumour projecting past the outside of the skull.

This person had been hit by a heavy object, but continued to live for about six months afterwards. The damage was thought to have been caused by trepanning until "the 'Ologists" found radiating fractures around the skull.

This one, quite amusingly, found itself being used as a nest by a bird which had got in through a broken window. It laid eggs and everything!

The amount of skulls and bones is mind-boggling, there are four bays filled up to the roof with skulls, and this stack measures 7.5m long by about 2m deep and wide.

Whoever it was that re-stacked them in 1908 must have had a sense of humour about the task!

Not sure what happened to the top of this ones head?!

The display also includes some items of interest like these badly set broken bones, and hair found amongst the stacked bones (I didn't photograph that - it grossed me out for some reason).

The rows of jaws were interesting - no cavities showing meaning that they must have had a very sugar free diet.

Watch Barry from Eastenders interviewing the Ossuary's caretakers and University researchers here.

For opening times of the crypt and other information about St Leonard's Church, Hythe, their website can be found here. The crypt is only open from May to September. Entry costs £1, which goes towards the upkeep of the bones and is well worth it!

And I wrote the whole thing without making a 'Skeletons in the Closet' joke. Whew!

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