Other researchers

Students at the University of Sheffield have undertaken novel research projects based on the Charnel Chapel. Short biographies and summaries of their research findings below give a flavour of the exciting data beginning to be collected and analysed.

Jennifer Gonissen

I completed my bachelorā€™s degree and first masters degree in Art History and Archaeology with a specialism in Prehistory at UniversitĆ© Libre de Bruxelles (ULB). My first masters dissertation focussed on the unidentified osteological collection of the very first Society of Anthropology in Belgium. I enrolled on the MSc Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology at the University of Sheffield in 2012 to further my interest in osteology.

As I had visited ossuaries before while travelling I was interested in working with the Charnel Chapel of Rothwell. The aim of my dissertation was to discern whether new digitalisation technologies can be applied to human bones. I used a method based on 3D photogrammetry and reflectance transformation, imaging that I had previously had the opportunity to test at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS). I then compared results from visual analysis and metric results obtained by traditional hands-on anthropology with the results obtained from the 3D images.

I am now back in Belgium, where I volunteer at RBINS as an osteoarchaeologist and I have also been a volunteer demonstrator for the Palaeoanthropology course at ULB for the past two years. I have gained a teaching certification, occasionally giving guided tours in art and sciences museums and teaching teenagers - while keeping a strong interest in funerary archaeology!

Jesse Johnson

I graduated from the 2013 to 2014 MSc Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology course at Sheffield. I currently work for a commercial archaeology unit in Lincoln and since joining I have been involved with excavating the largest known Roman settlement site in North Lincolnshire, as well as processing over 50 Victorian-era exhumations. My favourite areas of study involve the osteological changes throughout life and their simultaneous forensic and archaeological application; from growth and disease, to the effects of trauma. I hope to be able to turn this focus towards PhD study (at Sheffield!) in the near future.

My dissertation focussed on analysing the shape and size of the skulls within the Rothwell crypt to attempt to determine individual affinity with areas of geographic origin, and any patterns within the crypt individuals. Previous research shows that dimensions of the human cranium have a significant correlation with the geographic origin of populations as a result of natural selection from environmental pressures, gene flow and developmental plasticity.

Taking a sample of 49 skulls, I measured a series of 29 different facial and cranial measurements to encompass a complete profile of the shape and size of each skull. With this data and an amazingly ingenious statistical computer programme known as CRANiD, the osteometric information could be referenced against a database of over 70 world populations and the variations between the size and shape of their crania. My results showed that many of the people from the ossuary had the same shaped skulls as Romano-British and medieval British populations, but there was also consistency between the individuals ans other populations from across Europe, including Scandinavian and Continental European groups.

Jessica McGinn

I completed my masters degree in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Sheffield in 2014 to 2015. Prior to this, I completed a BA Near Eastern and Classical Archaeology degree at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada in 2014. I have worked on archaeological sites in Greece and Egypt, doing everything from excavating a drain pipe to identifying and recording human remains! I am currently working with international students at the University of Sheffield.

I was very excited to be a part of the Rothwell project, conducting my masters dissertation on a sample of the Rothwell crania. My research focussed on recording osteological information on the collection, including estimating sex, age, taphonomic information, to formulate a database. This database will serve as a reference point for future research as well as shedding some light on the individuals that are housed there. I then compared this information to other osteological collections and investigated how Rothwell and other skeletal collections have been utilised and analysed previously.

Lauren Proctor

Lauren completed her masters degree in osteology in 2014. Her dissertation focussed on investigating validity of previous research by the antiquarian Parsons in the early 20th century. In 1907, Parsons, who had trained as a medical doctor, analysed some of the charnel at Rothwell. He concluded that there were two different types of crania; long, slim crania that were dark in colour, and short, wide crania that were pale in colour.

It has been thought that the dark staining indicated that these skeletons had been in coffins. As this interpretation is now known to be unlikely, Lauren reanalysed the skulls and used modern multivariate statistical analysis to investigate whether the stained crania genuinely represented two distinct populations. She found that there were, in fact, three different shades of crania, and also that the pattern Parsons identified in crania shape was statistically valid. She suggested that we would need to explore the potential reasons for the colour difference between the skulls in more detail in the future if we are to understand this intriguing pattern.

Mairi MacLean

Mairi completed a masters degree in human osteology and zooarchaeology in 2013 to 2014. Her dissertation concentrated on the animal bones that are included in the two stacks of human charnel in the crypt. Mairi found that there were lower limb elements from sheep, cow, deer and horse. Horse meat was not eaten during the medieval period, and deer was primarily food for royalty. This research highlighted the fact that graveyards during the medieval period were actively used by the living community, where both religious (plays, preaching) and secular events (games, markets, meetings) took place.

With this in mind, the presence of the animal bones in the cemetery might be explained in two ways:

  1. Use of the cemetery for waste disposal, perhaps following markets or other meetings located in the cemetery itself.

  2. The natural death of animals who had wandered in to the cemetery, and whose remains were unnoticed.

The animal bones could then have made their way into the stacks after being collected alongside human remains - this could reflect a rather careless process of bone selection, or may have been entirely accidental if those doing the collecting had a poor understanding of human anatomy. Mairiā€™s research provides important information on animal use and disposal during the medieval period.