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Courtesy the University of Sheffield
Courtesy the University of Sheffield

3D Modeling Lets You Step Inside a 13th-Century Chapel Filled With Human Remains

Courtesy the University of Sheffield
Courtesy the University of Sheffield

In medieval Britain, if human remains were disturbed in the grave or disinterred, they would be removed from the cemetery and placed in what was called a charnel chapel, a religious structure that often had walls stacked high with human remains that temporarily lacked a proper resting place. Charnel houses were popular in England between the 13th and 16th centuries (and are still used in some countries). Only two original charnel chapels are undisturbed today in the UK. One, the Rothwell charnel chapel, is now becoming much more accessible to the public through digital modeling.

The Rothwell Charnel Chapel Project at the University of Sheffield is creating 3D models of the chapel so that other researchers and the public can explore the medieval room for themselves. The Rothwell site is the most complete charnel chapel in the UK—most were repurposed, dismantled, or buried during the Reformation—but it's not a highly accessible site. Besides, the room is filled with the bones of hundreds of people, and visitors could pose a threat to its preservation.

Studying the chapel can "advance our understanding of how the remains of the dead were treated during the medieval period," lead Sheffield researcher Lizzy Craig-Atkins explained in a university press release. English charnel chapels are not well studied, since the largely Catholic practice ceased during the Reformation, and much of the evidence of them disappeared. However, the Sheffield team has recently identified 60 potential charnel sites across England.

In predominantly Protestant England, "as opposed to much of mainland Europe," the project website explains, "the practice of charnelling and charnel chapel construction, and all the devotional and liturgical purposes they held, were forgotten." And this makes them largely "a neglected area of funerary archaeology," the researchers point out. There's some evidence that charnel chapels served as confessionals, and that there were priests assigned to pray for the souls of members of the public. But little is known about the British structures, especially compared to their European counterparts.

By sharing their "digital ossuary" online, the team is making it easier for researchers to study the practice of charnelling in England and the role it played in medieval religious practices. And even if you have no stake in studying medieval religion in England, it's still really fun to explore an underground room full of 13th-century skulls.

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Photograph by Sofía Samper Carro. "Fishing in life and death: Pleistocene fish-hooks from a burial context on Alor Island, Indonesia," Antiquity, Sue O’Connor, Mahirta, Sofía C. Samper Carro, Stuart Hawkin, Shimona Kealy, Julien Louys and Rachel Wood.
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
These 12,000-Year-Old Fish Hooks Are the Oldest to Ever Be Discovered in a Grave
Photograph by Sofía Samper Carro. "Fishing in life and death: Pleistocene fish-hooks from a burial context on Alor Island, Indonesia," Antiquity, Sue O’Connor, Mahirta, Sofía C. Samper Carro, Stuart Hawkin, Shimona Kealy, Julien Louys and Rachel Wood.
Photograph by Sofía Samper Carro. "Fishing in life and death: Pleistocene fish-hooks from a burial context on Alor Island, Indonesia," Antiquity, Sue O’Connor, Mahirta, Sofía C. Samper Carro, Stuart Hawkin, Shimona Kealy, Julien Louys and Rachel Wood.

Prehistoric people who lived on Indonesia’s rugged and remote Alor Island held fishing in such high importance that even the dead were supplied with equipment for snagging a fresh catch. While digging at an archaeological site on the island’s south coast in 2014, scientists found a group of ancient fish hooks, which were buried with an adult human around 12,000 years ago. They’re the oldest fishhooks to ever be discovered in a grave, according to a new report published in the journal Antiquity.

Archaeologists from Australian National University found the partial skeleton while excavating an early rock shelter on Alor’s west coast. The bones—which appeared to belong to a female—were interred with five circular one-piece fish hooks made from sea snail shell. Also found was a perforated bivalve shell, buried beneath the skeleton’s chin. It’s unclear what purpose this artifact served, but experts did note that it had been smoothed and polished, and appeared to have once been dyed red.

Ancient fish hooks discovered in Indonesia by archaeologists from Australian National University
Rotating fish hooks found with the burial

Photograph by Sofía Samper Carro. "Fishing in life and death: Pleistocene fish-hooks from a burial context on AlorIsland, Indonesia," Antiquity, Sue O’Connor, Mahirta, Sofía C. Samper Carro, Stuart Hawkin, Shimona Kealy, Julien Louys, and Rachel Wood.

Prehistoric fish hooks found in Indonesia by archaeologists from Australian National University.
Circular rotating fish hooks found with the burial

Photograph by Sofía Samper Carro. "Fishing in life and death: Pleistocene fish-hooks from a burial context on AlorIsland, Indonesia," Antiquity, Sue O’Connor, Mahirta, Sofía C. Samper Carro, Stuart Hawkin, Shimona Kealy, Julien Louys and Rachel Wood.

Researchers used radiocarbon dating to determine the age of charcoal samples found near the burial ground. From this, they determined that the fish hooks and human remains were buried during the Pleistocene Epoch.

Alor Island, the largest island in the volcanic Alor Archipelago, is rocky and lacks a variety of plant life and protein sources. For these reasons, fish was likely an important staple food for ancient residents, and the act of fishing may have also been considered cosmologically important, archaeologists say.

The burial on Alor Island "represents the earliest-known example of a culture for whom fishing was clearly an important activity among both the living and the dead,” the study's authors wrote. Additionally, if the skeleton indeed belonged to a woman (the bones themselves haven't yet been conclusively identified), the hooks might suggest that women in ancient Alor were tasked with hook-and-line fishing, just like those in ancient Australia.

Archaeologists have identified prehistoric fishing hooks at sites around the world. They range from 23,000-year-old hooks, discovered on Japan’s Okinawa Island (the world’s oldest-known fishing implements), to slate hooks from Siberia’s late Mesolithic period (the second-oldest hooks ever found in a gravesite).

The fishing hooks discovered on Alor are circular instead of J-shaped, and resemble other ancient hooks that were once used in countries like Japan, Australia, Mexico, and Chile. Some experts have suggested that these similarities in technology were the result of migration, cultural contact, or even from fish hooks left in migrating tuna. The researchers at Australian National University argue against this theory, hypothesizing that the similarly shaped hooks are instead evidence of “convergent cultural evolution in technology” around the globe.

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NOVA SCOTIA ARCHIVES AND RECORDS MANAGEMENT, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
A Mystery Shipwreck in Canada Might Be Tied to the 1917 Halifax Explosion
NOVA SCOTIA ARCHIVES AND RECORDS MANAGEMENT, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
NOVA SCOTIA ARCHIVES AND RECORDS MANAGEMENT, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On December 6, 1917, a massive explosion boomed across Halifax Harbor, a key Nova Scotia port and a major center for naval ships in North America during World War I. A French cargo ship carrying high explosives, including TNT, collided with a Norwegian steamship, starting a fire that lit up the French vessel. The accident caused what would become the world’s biggest non-nuclear explosion. An entire neighborhood along the harbor was flattened to the ground.

Now, 100 years later, the spotlight is back on another potential victim of the explosion. As CBC News reports, a still-unidentified mystery shipwreck discovered in 2002 may be linked to the event, too.

Researchers don’t know much about the copper-clad, steam-powered schooner found at the bottom of Halifax Harbor during a geological survey of the sea floor. Its remains are half-buried under silt and marine life more than 90 feet below the surface of the water, around 330 feet away from the Halifax shipyard. The experts who have studied the ship since its initial discovery have yet to even identify its name.

There are no records of the ship’s sinking, leading researchers like marine geologist Gordon Fader, who helped find the wreck, to believe it sank during the explosion. Had it gone down after the event, there likely would have been some record of it in newspapers. And the ship was, by all accounts, a rather expensive vessel, possibly one that belonged to either the British navy or a very wealthy owner. It was made with high-quality copper and brass and built for speed, meaning its sinking would have cost someone a hefty chunk of money.

If the ship’s sinking did go unheralded in the aftermath of the massive Halifax explosion, researchers have two potential leads: There were two ships believed to be lost in the explosion that were never found, called the St. Bernard and the Lola R. But the descriptions of those ships don’t quite match up with what’s lying at the bottom of the harbor. A year and a half of research yielded no further information.

Since the last report came out in 2004, the search for its identity has slowed. We may never know the identity of the mystery ship. But as new technology becomes available for studying underwater remains, we can at least hope to glean some new clues.

[h/t CBC News]

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