Skele­tons un­earthed in UK train line ex­ca­va­tion

Viet Nam News - - LIFE&STYLE -

LONDON — Tucked be­side one of London’s busiest rail­way sta­tions, a small army of ar­chae­ol­o­gists dig through clay as they clear a burial site of 40,000 bod­ies to make way for a new train line.

They have al­ready un­earthed the first 1,200 skele­tons from St James Gar­dens, a park next to the Eus­ton ter­mi­nal, which was a ceme­tery be­tween 1788 and around 1853.

It is one of Bri­tain’s largest ever digs, and one of more than 60 ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites that have emerged dur­ing the con­struc­tion of a new high-speed rail link from London to Birm­ing­ham.

Since ex­perts be­gan work at Eus­ton a few weeks ago, the site has been trans­formed into muddy, stepped trenches and ex­ca­va­tions as deep as eight me­tres.

Dozens of ar­chae­ol­o­gists in high-vis­i­bil­ity or­ange suits and hard hats swarm one sec­tion of the plot un­der an 11,000 square-me­tre roof that pro­tects them from the rain and pry­ing eyes.

Their work has ex­posed remarkably well-pre­served graves, pro­tected from wa­ter dam­age by the clay that char­ac­terises much of the ground in London.

In one, the stone cover was re­moved to re­veal an in­tact wooden cof­fin, in which lay a skele­ton with a twisted spine and a full set of teeth.

Such dis­cov­er­ies on a large scale will help re­searchers un­der­stand how peo­ple lived and died at a cru­cial stage in Bri­tain’s in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion.

“This is prob­a­bly the big­gest as­sem­blage of skele­tons from the 18th, 19th cen­tury ever ex­ca­vated un­der ar­chae­o­log­i­cal con­di­tions in this coun­try,” said se­nior os­te­ol­o­gist Mike Henderson.

“When you’ve got such a large data set we can re­ally start to ask some im­por­tant ques­tions... like dis­ease preva­lence, mor­tal­ity rates.”

So far the team has found ev­i­dence of tu­ber­cu­lo­sis, of trau­matic in­juries in­clud­ing bro­ken bones, proof of early den­tistry – false teeth – and surgery in­clud­ing sawn skulls.

The state-funded HS2 rail project is highly con­tro­ver­sial in Bri­tain, due to its costs and the way it will plough through coun­try­side and force hun­dreds of homes to be knocked down.

The ini­tial phase from London to the cen­tral English city of Birm­ing­ham is es­ti­mated to cost £24 bil­lion (US$31 bil­lion) and be com­pleted by 2026, af­ter which it will be ex­tended fur­ther north.

How­ever, for ar­chae­ol­o­gists, the project has been a boon, of­fer­ing fund­ing and op­por­tu­ni­ties for new digs re­veal­ing pre-his­toric, me­dieval, Ro­man and in­dus­trial re­mains across Eng­land.

“We wouldn’t make these dis­cov­er­ies if there wasn’t some sort of de­vel­op­ment,” said He­len Wass, head of her­itage at HS2.

There were orig­i­nally 60,000 peo­ple buried at St James, al­though a sec­tion of the ceme­tery was cleared long ago to build the sta­tion.

The cur­rent ex­ca­va­tion team be­gan with the sec­tion re­served for the wealthy, where the wellspaced graves are made of stone and en­grav­ings or lead plates on the coffins are tes­ta­ment to the oc­cu­pant.

Among the prominent fig­ures be­lieved buried there are Matthew Flin­ders, who charted the coast­line of Aus­tralia and gave the coun­try its name, and the founder of Christie’s auc­tion house.

Over the coming year, the team – peak­ing at around 200, in­clud­ing those in on-site labs – will move to the “poorer side” where the graves are closer to­gether.

Af­ter be­ing cleaned, bagged and tested, the skele­tons will be re­buried on con­se­crated ground.

Sev­eral ar­chae­ol­o­gists on site wear head-mounted video cam­eras and carry elec­tronic tablets, to bet­ter record their data.

Af­ter they leave, con­struc­tion will be­gin on 11 new plat­forms and tracks con­nect­ing the old Eus­ton sta­tion with the new HS2 line.

“If we don’t get it right in the field, we can’t come back and re­peat this,” Wass said. — AFP

Bril­liant bones: A field ar­chael­o­gist uses a brush on a skele­ton in an open cof­fin dur­ing the ex­ca­va­tion. — AFP Photo

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