Rest in Peace London, Eventually II

The funny thing is, when I wrote the original blog post I never thought I would be writing another as a sequel. That post always felt like a bit of a tangent to my usual writing and although I do sometimes divert off into other subjects, I try to avoid doing that too much because I assume my readers are here for a precise reason.

This is funny to me because since I published Rest In Peace London, Eventually I have received some amazing feedback and I realised that I thoroughly enjoyed the research process. I felt this to the point that I dreamed that maybe one day I could even pursue a doctorate that had always felt out of reach for no other reason than my own confidence and a lack of focus on a unique subject.

In addition to the utter joy in being able to dig through historical records and traipse around cemeteries for information, I have since realised that I could add to what I already had discovered from an entirely different angle but one that I have a lot of knowledge on.

October is a complete month of celebration for me for two main reasons. Halloween, of course, is something I adore with my whole heart and always have done. I love everything about it. Secondly, October is when the London Month of the Dead happens and people gather to listen to talks or go on walks with incredibly knowledgeable people in relation to death. I have been attending these events for a few years now and I love that I get to combine my death fascination with a previous love of mine in the form of some amazing archaeological talks quite often from people I have known for some time.

I was sat in one of these talks at the start of October. This one was by the incredible Jelena Beklavac, although I was also then later inspired a week later by Andrew Reynolds (who actually taught me around fifteen years ago for my undergraduate degree) to come back to the subject of the long dead of London.

When I was an archaeology student at UCL, we had seventy days compulsory fieldwork which could be a combination of different trips around the world or helping on research projects. At the time, I had a slight near-death incident (possibly over dramatised, but also possibly not…), where I then decided I would stay in London for a bit and do a chunk of my seventy days in the London Archaeological Archive and Resource Centre (LAARC). LAARC is a huge building, originally a warehouse-type structure, which is situated close to Old Street and is filled with racks and racks of boxes all full of archaeological finds from excavations. This includes some of the people they found too.

Indeed some of those large cardboard boxes contain what remains of some of the individuals excavated from cemeteries or other places of burial that no longer exist thanks to development over time disturbing them. Huge swathes of burial grounds have been exhumed due to projects, most recently for example the Crossrail project. Sometimes these individuals are exhumed and buried elsewhere, away from their original resting place but back in the ground to be left at peace again.

However also sometimes they are kept in a very carefully monitored environment inside an archive. Skulls are often kept in their own smaller boxes with other bones in a larger box. Each person will be given a number, which links them to a place in the excavation where their grave was. Occasionally it is known or discoverable who the individuals are, and this can happen through things such as metal coffin plates which can be found be found with them if the conditions allow.

The reason why some individuals are kept like this is because they can hold invaluable information about our past and the populations of the past. A skeleton can tell you a lot about someone. Visibly you can tell generally if someone had male or female physical characteristics and you can approximate their age based on characteristics too. Sometimes you may see signs of trauma on someone skeleton indicating injuries or signs of diseases that have impacted the bone. Further study of these bones, through things like isotope analysis, can tell you aspects of that individual like where they grew up through the water that they drank.

This all brings me full circle to where I started in talking about the archaeologists presenting at London Month of the Dead. Jelena has done a lot of work on collections of bones of the dead from numerous cemeteries, collating information from them all. From this she presented a talk based on the differences in illness and inferred causes of death between the pre-industrial populations and the later industrial ones. Try is is a great example of how large assemblages and the archived remains of people can form the basis for very interesting studies about our ancestors.

In conclusion for this part, while you think that your final resting place in the ground is where you will stay it may be worth considering that the burial ground you are in might not exist forever. That you might be exhumed and taken to another burial ground to rest there, or in hundreds of years your remains might form a study collection for archaeology and anatomy living in a cardboard box on a shelf somewhere.

You may think cremation could be a good way to avoid this but I’ve seen plenty of urns of ashes in museums before in my time. Perhaps having your ashes scattered is the best way to truly not be disturbed ever again.

MG x

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