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11 Skeletons Found at Guildford’s Oldest Church

Published on: 21 Nov, 2023
Updated on: 23 Nov, 2023

St Mary’s with the excavation underway

By Mary Alexander

formerly of Guildford Museum

Eleven skeletons were discovered in the excavations at St. Mary’s Church in Quarry Street in 2019 and 2020, an audience of local history enthusiasts were told on Saturday (November 18).

The excavations were carried out by Archaeology South East, part of University College London, and headed by Chris Russel. They had been called in to examine the church floor prior to renovations at the church to improve access and install underfloor heating.

Some of the human remains found in the excavation at St Mary’s. Photo with kind permission of Archaeology South-East

The most interesting discovery was of eleven skeletons in the church and churchyard. Three of these were radiocarbon dated to the 11th and 12th centuries (radiocarbon can only give a span of dates, not a single one.)

This is exciting because some of them are probably late Anglo-Saxon (before 1066). Most of the skeletons inside the church were in the north aisle.

Three of them were complete and two had bones missing. This may be because of later burials, or because of later re-flooring work.

All but one of the bodies were positioned as usually found, on their backs with arms by the sides or crossed at the waist. But one body was unusual because the torso was on its side, while the legs were straight.

This body was of a mature adult, around 30 to 45 years, and about 5’ 3” to 5’ 4” tall but it was not clear whether it was a man or a woman. The remains dated from anywhere between 1035 and 1220 but are probably from the earlier part of this range.

The grave had been partly cut into for another burial, also a mature adult, probably a male of around 5’ 8” high. His bones had signs of a hard-working life with a lot of twisting, bending and lifting.

The skeleton truncated at the waist by post-burial construction. Photo with kind permission of Archaeology South-East

The third skeleton in this area had been cut through at the waist when the north transept was built. This was after the Norman Conquest of 1066, and before 1100 or a little later. The nave and south transept were built at the same time.

All three bodies may have been buried before this. The third skeleton was probably a rather short, mature woman between 4’ 9” and 5’ 1” high. It was dated from 1030 to 1220, and has to be in the early part of the range.

There was also one skeleton in the south aisle. It was a mature adult but height and sex could not be estimated. It was dated to 1050-1265, and again, perhaps earlier in the span.

The skeletons were not far below the surface, which seems odd. The excavator thought that when the nave was built the ground was levelled down, removing the upper levels of soil and probably many other skeletons.

We know from wills of around 1500 that several people were buried in the nave but they are no longer there. They may have been removed when the church was restored in 1863, or when a new floor was laid in 1967. Only those with sufficient wealth or status were normally buried within the church.

Five more skeletons were found when the foundations for the new porch were dug. They were definitely buried outside the church. These were later than the medieval period, and seem to have been buried when the churchyard was very full, as they were close together. All the bones which had to be removed have been re-buried in the churchyard.

Four brick burial vaults were uncovered in the nave but were not affected by the building work. By chance, I discovered that one was the family vault of Dr Thomas Remington who died in 1832. His wife died in 1805.

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Responses to 11 Skeletons Found at Guildford’s Oldest Church

  1. Laura Musgrave Reply

    November 21, 2023 at 7:28 pm

    Thanks so much to Mary, the other speakers and the organisers for a very interesting and thought provoking talk.

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