Oxford Archaeology has one of the longest histories of post-medieval cemetery excavation. We were one of the first archaeological practices to work with exhumation companies, for example in 1992-94 at St Nicholas’ Church, Sevenoaks, in 2000 at St Luke’s Church, Islington, between 1999 and 2001 at the Royal Naval Hospital, Greenwich, and in 2003 at St George’s Church, Bloomsbury. Back then, the importance of archaeological research on post-medieval assemblages had limited recognition. The removal of burials by exhumation companies was commonplace, while protocols for working on these assemblages were patchy.
Since then, post-medieval assemblages have gained wide recognition for their high research value, and best practice protocols have been developed. One primary reason why such assemblages are so important is the fact that they often comprise large numbers from which meaningful trends and patterns in burial practice, health, disease, demography and physical attributes can be determined. Yet archaeological excavation and recording of large assemblages is time consuming and so cost is prohibitive.
In 2014, the Advisory Panel for Burials in England (APABE) issued a consultation document on sampling large burial grounds. Focusing on strategies for overcoming the practical and economic constraints imposed by the sheer scale of these sites, this guidance is primarily (although not exclusively) aimed at 18th and 19th century burial grounds.
Random selection, or selection based on certain archaeological or osteological criteria, either at the excavation or post-excavation stage of a project, are solutions proposed by the APABE document. It also states that analysing skeletons on site (instead of in a laboratory setting, as is traditionally the case) is not a desirable solution because it limits data capture.
The majority of post-medieval burial projects undertaken by OA have involved on-site osteological analysis. However, this has not been motivated by an attempt to address practical and economic constraints, but has been in response to a legal requirement (most often faculty jurisdiction) not to remove human remains from consecrated ground and/or to immediately re-bury them. Over the years we have developed strategies to address this and maximise the quality of the data being retrieved, establishing temporary laboratories on site where osteologists can work through the material, as exemplified on more recent projects, such as St Paul’s Church in Hammersmith, London. Our excavation of First World War mass graves in Fromelles, northern France, is another project where examinations were undertaken on site and, with the adoption of modern day mortuary management and forensic operation procedures is perhaps the ultimate on-site laboratory set-up.
The requirement for a guidance document such as that produced by the APABE has become critical, because large post-medieval cemeteries are being developed at an increasing rate. Once focused on London, this is becoming more common elsewhere. In the last five or so years, OA has worked on projects in Lancashire (Redearth Primitive Methodist Chapel, Darwen), South Shields (St Hilda’s Church), and Greater Manchester (Swinton Unitarian Free Church).