John’s College built on ancient burial ground
There always was something sinister about that place
One of the biggest medieval hospital burial grounds in Britain has been found under a Cambridge college – containing the remains of 1,300 people.
Archaeologists unearthed more than 400 graves under the Old Divinity School at St John’s College and found perfectly preserved skeletons from the 13th-15th Centuries.
They also found “disarticulated” and “fragmentary remains” of what could be as many as 1,000 more individuals.
Historians knew of the existence and location of the cemetery but the extent of the burial ground was not known until now.
The graves are of those treated at the medieval Hospital of St John the Evangelist which stood opposite the graveyard until 1511 and where the college takes its name from.
The archaeologists say the number of remains found was far more than expected and they shed significant new light on life and death in medieval Cambridge.
They show a roughly equal gender balance and most of the individuals died between the ages of around 25 and 45.
There are no children and an absence of young women.
They believe this is because the hospital ruled that from 1250 its concern would be “poor scholars and other wretched persons” and specifically excluded pregnant women.
Photographs of the dig, which took place between 2010 and 2012 as part of the Victorian Building’s refurbishment, have only just been released.
Craig Cessford, of the Cambridge University Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, said: “This was a very interesting site, it’s very different to what we usually do.
“This is certainly the biggest medieval burial site in Cambridgeshire and one of the largest excavations in Britain.
“Unfortunately a lot of the graves had been disturbed in the 1870s when the new building was put up.
“The bones are so old that there is almost no trace on them what the person died of.
“It is likely most of them died of the things we die of today such as infectious diseases.
“We knew that old university scholars were mostly buried there so we were surprised to see there was a gender balance.
“It was surprising that there were no infants at all.”
The site of the Old Divinity School, built between 1877 and 1879, was formerly the burial ground of the hospital.
It was established around 1195 by residents of Cambridge to care for the poor and sick in the community.
Despite local rumours linking the hospital cemetery to the Black Death, no evidence of this disease was found on any of the remains and no large group burials were found.
Indeed, the bodies did not exhibit many serious illnesses and conditions that would have required medical attention.
The new report suggests that “this could reflect that the main role of the Hospital was spiritual and physical care of the poor and infirm rather than medical treatment of the sick and injured”.
The bodies remain at the Cambridge Archaeology Unit for further testing. They had to be removed when the college building was extended into the ground.