Discovery of 500-year-old bones in central Peterborough

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ARCHAEOLOGISTS have been confounded by the shock discovery of a medieval burial ground containing human remains outside St John’s Church in Peterborough.

Builders working on the creation of St John’s Square as part of the multi-million pound regeneration of the city centre dug up more than they bargained for on Tuesday when the 500-year-old skeletal remains of four people were discovered just outside the west entrance.

Site manager Dave Gibson outside the west front of St John's Church in the city centre showing the area bones have been found during the reconstruction of the west front entrance.

Site manager Dave Gibson outside the west front of St John's Church in the city centre showing the area bones have been found during the reconstruction of the west front entrance.

The discovery could scupper hopes of the works being completed by September with architects currently discussing a re-design so that the stairs leading down to the church do not disrupt the burial site.

But the delay could be a side issue when set against the potential revelations it could bring about Peterborough’s heritage, as historical records make no mention of a burial ground in the immediate vicinity of the church and more remains could be found.

Adam Yates, project manager for Northamptonshire Archaeologists, which is overseeing the regeneration work, said: “It was very much a surprise.

“Records make no reference to a grave yard next to the church, so it was a surprise all round to find burials had taken place there.

The dig site next to St John's Church. (METP-09-06-10RH87) Picture: Rowland Hobson

The dig site next to St John's Church. (METP-09-06-10RH87) Picture: Rowland Hobson

“The burial ground itself probably dates back to the early days of the church, in or around the 15th century.

“They are consistent with churchyard burials as they are all lined up.”

Julian Limentani, the Peterborough Cathedral architect who is representing St John’s Church, said that it is the church’s wish that the remains are not disturbed, which rules out exhuming the graves.

Archaeologists will instead carry out a “soil scraping” to get a better look at the bones as well as looking to discover what other ground has been disturbed by potential burials.

Little work has been done on the site yet, but a human skull and leg bones can clearly be seen in the shallow holes dug by builders, who will now have to protect the bones when the stairs are built.

Dave Gibson, site manager for builders Osborne’s, said: “We don’t want to disturb the remains any more than we have to so we are meeting with designers to look at how we can build the stairs and ramps down to the church while protecting the bones beneath.”

Paul Middleton, secretary of the Peterborough diocesan advisory committee, said there was nothing to indicate there was a burial site around the church, with the church’s previous graveyard situation on what is now the Crescent Roundabout, by Queensgate.

Other archaeological fins in Peterborough

Bones that are believed to have formed part of a 12th century graveyard were discovered in a back garden in Thorpe Park Road, Peterborough last September.

Coins, pottery, cutlery and clothing dating back to pre-16th century Peterborough was unearthed beneath Cathedral Square last July as a dig was held before the regeneration works began.

A Time Team excavation of the 213-year-old Roman Cross Prisoner of War camp last July found pottery, buttons, glass, dominoes and items carved by prisoners.

Flag Fen, north of the River Nene, is the city’s most famous archaeological site, preserving Bronze Age timber walkways built by Celts 3,500 years ago.