Page last updated at 10:27 GMT, Monday, 10 April 2006 11:27 UK

Burial find reveals ancient lives

Greig Watson
BBC News, Leicester

Harriet Jacklin with a diseased jawbone
A huge amount can be learnt from skeletal remains

They are dust and dry bones. Hundreds of people, generation upon generation, reduced to neatly boxed scraps and splinters.

But a team from the University of Leicester archaeology unit has a rare opportunity to tell us about the lives these people led.

Work on the extension to a shopping centre in Leicester city centre unearthed the largest medieval parish cemetery outside London, containing more than 1,300 skeletons.

As well as the sheer scale of the site, the significance lies in its close identification with an area over a defined period of time, roughly from 1200 to 1600, effectively recording the human history of a neighbourhood.

Harriet Jacklin is an osteologist, trained to examine human bones for clues about their lives - and deaths.

A pile of skeletons immediately after discovery
We have discovered there are a high number of infants and juveniles
Harriet Jacklin, Osteologist
She said: "It's a fantastic opportunity - we have such a large number of individuals.

"It's one of the largest to be excavated in recent years and therefore full analysis will be able to tell us about the population who lived, worked and died in Leicester."

She added: "We can look at the age of the individual, the sex of the individual, we can look at their diet and lifestyle and social status and sometimes we can even see what they died of."

Age and gender can be estimated by the development and shape of the bones. While children are usually obvious from their size, the formative nature of their skeletons mean it is not possible to gauge sex.

First results from the St Peters site indicate how dark and difficult medieval life could be for children.

A skull and pieces of skeleton
There appears to have been a slightly better standard of dental health among individuals buried within the church
Harriet Jacklin
Ms Jacklin added: "We have discovered there are a high number of infants and juveniles and this could be an indication of the quantity of diseases which while they leave little direct effect on the skeleton, would have a big effect on the child mortality rate."

Another valuable source of information is the teeth.

She said: "Many of the teeth are very worn, showing a coarse diet. There are also possible abscesses, where decay has eaten into the jawbone, which would have caused a huge amount of pain.

"There appears to have been a slightly better standard of dental health among individuals buried within the church, indicated perhaps a better standard of living and therefore higher social status."

Tony Ratnam, a University of Leicester Archaeology Service (ULAS) field officer, said: "Since it is a church site, you don't get much of the day to day items you would associate with domestic life.

"We did, however, find materials associated with the church and religious life - including what we think is the left arm from a crucifix.

Two skeletons a day

There are also tiles from the church, often decorated with the coats of arms from local nobility.

"It's interesting to think the feet of those people we dug up probably walked across these tiles on their way to pray."

Another find from the site was the lead seal from a papal bull, a document purchased from the Church in hope of absolving sins and shortening the individual's time in purgatory.

It dates from the reign of Pope Innocent VI who reigned from 1352 to 1362.

Mr Ratnam said: "This is shortly after the Black Death, which killed millions of people and may well have focussed people's thoughts on the afterlife."

The team hopes to record an average of two skeletons per person per day - with those of special interest sent for further analysis - and expects to get through the collection in roughly two years.

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