Friday, April 10, 2009

Franciscan remains discovered during excavations at Marischal College

The skeletons of seven men, thought to be Franciscan friars, have been discovered during archaeological excavations at Marischal College.

The medieval remains of at least five other people have also been found during the excavations undertaken by Aberdeen City Council archaeologists in advance of the creation of the council's new headquarters.

The site is a very important historic location, not only because of the presence of Marischal College there since the 16th century, but also because one of Aberdeen's major religious houses, the Franciscan Friary, occupied the same site from the late 15th century onwards.

Walls and cobbled surfaces associated with the medieval friary have been uncovered - including parts of the early 16th century friary complex. Greyfriars Church itself survived until the early 20th century. Walls of 17th-19th century university structures have also emerged and been recorded. Numerous objects have been found during the dig, including two complete pottery vessels dating from the 15th or 16th century.

The remains of the seven adult males were excavated at the site in the last few days. They had been buried with their heads to the south-west, outside the north wall of the medieval Greyfriars Church. The burials probably date to the 15th century, as the graves were sealed by the laying of a cobbled surface above them. The first discovery was made on Friday, 27 March.

The Franciscan Friars (known as Greyfriars because of the colour of their clothing) came to Aberdeen in the 1460s and it is likely that these burials took place not long after this date. The graves had been cut deeply into the natural geology. The hands of the men were clasped as if in prayer and may have been bound into that posture with cloth, which has since decayed in the soil. These men were probably Franciscan friars and would have been buried in their habits, which were probably made from coarse wool cloth.

The bones have now been lifted and the skeletons will be cleaned and sent to Glasgow University, where human bone specialist Paul Duffy will determine the age, and stature of the men, as well as diseases and ailments from which they suffered. Paul previously studied the bones of the 1,000 skeletons found during the St Nicholas Church dig.

Archaeologists have already been able to confirm that the Marischal College skeletons are male and that at least two of the men were elderly when they died. One had very worn teeth with many gaps where teeth had been lost prior to death, suggesting a lifetime of chewing and grinding food. This man also had a very painful arthritic spine.

Fish bones found in the abdomen area of another of the skeletons reveal that the man had eaten fish not long before he died. The fish bones will be sent to an expert who will determine the species.

The remains of several other individuals were found disarticulated in the graves. At least five skulls were found suggesting that the remains of at least 12 individuals lay in the site.

Medieval gravediggers often found previous burials whilst digging graves and the bones of these individuals were back-filled in the grave with the body of the recently deceased.

The future of the Marischal College skeletons and other remains will be determined once the study has been completed.