Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Wargrave Local History Society

Wargrave Local History Society

MEMBERS were given a presentation on the excavation of the village churchyard at May’s meeting.

Dr Stephanie Duensing and Dr Ceri Boston spoke about the archaeological work at the churchyard in early 2018, which was carried out ahead of the construction of the new St Mary’s Church Centre.

Dr Duensing is the archaeologist who led the excavation work, while Dr Boston is an osteologist who specialises in the analysis of the ancient bones that were discovered.

From the Mesolithic and Neolithic eras (around 12,000 to 15,000 years ago) and the Bronze Age, flints and a polished axe head were found in the area, which showed that there had been a human presence at that time.

Although no items from the early Iron Age were found, a middle to late Iron Age sword had been found about 200m from Wyatts Boatyard.

Scattered sherds were found along the line of a Roman road, although no evidence was found of any settled activity there.

There is no documentary evidence for a Saxon church at Wargrave but a font from that period rests by the lych gate and there are parts of a Norman arch in the north wall.

Nothing that survives is demonstrably pre-12th century but their size and other features suggests that there was an earlier church there.

The work began in January 2018 with a number of pits being dug in line with the foundations of the new building, which was intended to have as little impact as possible on the old burial sites.

The excavations did find human remains and cut through burial sites that dated from early ones, which used shrouds instead of coffins, to those with wooden coffins.

Relatively few datable items were found in the coffins — just a few brooches and pieces of jewellery and a pocket watch and a seal — but coffin fittings such as grips and brass tacks survived.

The material these were made of and the style of decoration helped in dating the bones that were found.

Several of these were of a pattern not seen elsewhere and so are now known as “Wargrave type”.

Some of the grave sites had been used many times over the 500 years or so and as a result the bones discovered might be just a small part of a skeleton.

Another method of dating the bones was stratographic — the lower the burial was in the soil, the earlier it must have been laid there.

While in many churchyards burials were in soil as little as 50cm deep, in the part of the Wargrave churchyard that was examined the burial level was around 1.5m deep, with areas of dense, non-articulated human remains.

Dr Duensing suggested that this feature may have arisen from disturbances to the soil when the church was reconstructed in the early 20th century.

One particularly interesting feature that was uncovered, but could not be investigated fully, was a very firm flint course close to the north wall of the church — possibly evidence of an earlier structure there.

Dr Boston explained that the osteological analysis tried to relate what could be discovered from the bones with what was otherwise known about an area’s history.

Records of burials in Wargrave survive from 1538 but there are no records from the Saxon era while those from 1813 are more detailed.

These showed that the number of deaths was high in the pre-Elizabethan era, when it dropped, only to rise again in the 1640s. Some of these variations could be matched to natural disasters, which would affect the weather and hence the effect of diseases and the agrarian economy.

The people of Wargrave were very much affected by the seasons and if they were malnourished would be more susceptible to disease.

The year 1644 was a particularly turbulent period in the area with bands of armed men — Royalist and Parliamentarian — coming and going, causing destruction and taking the food of the local townspeople. This led to a dramatic rise in the death rate for Wargrave.

Another period when this happened was the early 19th century, when land was being enclosed, leading to great rural poverty in Wargrave at the time.

Osteology can determine various facts about a person, such as the age at death, the sex (for adults), the ancestry, the stature and robustness of build and any damage or injury to teeth or the skeleton.

Some of the disease and damage, such as muscle damage or fractures, can be extrapolated to suggest their likely occupation.

In the part of the burial ground examined, there was a predominance of male burials, although it may be that the females were interred in another part of the churchyard.

The excavations were on the north side, which was “dark, cold and where the sun doesn’t shine”.

Until the Victorian area, the wealthy were buried on the south and east sides of the church, those buried on the north side being from the poorer classes.

Some of the fractures discovered were related to the person’s occupation — often indicating a trauma caused by work-related strains. An example was a fracture of an ankle bone seen particularly in female skeletons and likely to be associated with the operation of a treadle when weaving.

Other diseases might be associated with obesity or heavy loading of the spine in young age. Other types of fractures were overwhelmingly found in males — particularly in the ribs, which were likely to have been caused by everyday accidents but were also typical of the injuries caused by brawling.

Evidence could also be found of other diseases, such as scurvy and syphilis, while chronic sinusitis was found more in females — maybe caused by them cooking over fires in houses without chimneys, so creating a very smoky atmosphere.

The final stature of people is a good yardstick of the health of the population. Locally, people were not particularly tall or short, but compared with typical working class builds — men about 5ft 7in and women around 5ft 3in.

One aspect that was notable was the very low rates of death caused by diseases associated with deficiency, such as anaemia, rickets or scurvy, although one skeleton discovered showed signs of gout.

Dr Boston’s conclusions were that the burials were principally of working class agrarian or riverine people, who were occupied in work with strenuous repetitive activity but who were not particularly deprived.

But she added that this was from just a small area — 89 skeletons out of some 17,000 in the churchyard as a whole.

The human remains have since been reburied, alongside the gravestones that were moved to make room for the new building, and a full detailed report on the work will be published in due course.

The society’s next events are in June when members will be participating in the Wargrave Village Festival.

There will be a historic village walk on Sunday, June 16 and on Tuesday, June 18 the society will host an evening with Thomas Plant, a television antiques expert and local auctioneer.

In July, the society will visit Gilbert White House and Oates Museum in Selborne, Hampshire.

For more information, or to buy tickets for the June events, call Peter Delaney on 0118 940 3121 or visit www.wargravehistory.org.uk

Peter Delaney

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