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Department of Archaeology

Frequently Asked Questions

How many Scottish soldiers died in Durham?

An estimated 1,700 prisoners from the Battle of Dunbar died and were buried in Durham. Many of the deaths are thought to have been due to illness, starvation and poor sanitation.

Where were the skeletons found?

The skeletons were found in November 2013 underneath a disused courtyard during construction of a new café for the University’s Palace Green Library, on the City’s UNESCO World Heritage Site. The remains were uncovered by Durham University archaeologists who were present throughout the building work to monitor progress.

Durham University archaeologists were granted an exhumation licence issued by the Ministry of Justice and subsequently excavated the skeletons for further analysis.

How many skeletons were discovered?

Examination of bones in the laboratory showed that the minimum number of individuals present was at least 17. As the bones were jumbled and disarticulated it was difficult to put an exact number on how many individuals were present though a potential 28 individuals were numbered during excavation and another individual was not exhumed.

Why were other visible bones not excavated?

In line with responsible archaeological practice, experts only excavated and removed the bones from the exposed area earmarked for development and left as much in place as possible. As such, other visible bones which sit under the foundations of surrounding buildings and walls were not removed.

What tests were carried out?

Where possible, skeletons were reconstructed in the lab to determine factors such as age and sex. Teeth were examined for evidence of dental health, which helped identify the period when the individuals had lived. Isotopic analysis of tooth enamel was conducted to determine the origin of the skeletons.

During the dental examination, pipe-smoking facets were observed in two of the skeletons.

What is the significance of the evidence for pipe smoking?

Crescent-shaped “pipe facets” in the teeth are evidence that at least two of the soldiers smoked clay pipes. Clay pipes became widely available in Scotland around 1620 and in common use after 1640 – helping to date some of the human remains.

Your first radiocarbon tests proved inconclusive in determining the data range for the skeletons. How do you know your second test is reliable?

Radiocarbon dating isn’t always absolutely precise and there is a margin of error. The first radiocarbon tests were designed to establish broad dating of the site only.

The second tests were conducted on samples from individuals who were pipe smokers – automatically putting them in a certain date range (post-1620). The second tests produced a date range when the individuals died between 1625 and 1660.

How do you know the age of the skeletons and that the adults were all male?

Sex was determined by examining the pelvis and skulls of adult individuals where these bones were preserved. It was not possible to determine the sex of the adolescents reliably, although four of the older adolescents did look more likely to be male than female.

The age of the adolescents was determined by examining the stage of development of the teeth and bones. The age of the adults was determined through looking at any late-fusing bones (some bones continue to fuse into the early 20s), and the appearance of parts of the pelvis and ribs which undergo a series of changes with age.

Why did the tests take so long to analyse?

Each stage of the research took a few months. The skeletons had to be recorded before we could decide what samples to take for isotope analysis and that analysis took several months.

The initial results were announced but then we needed another round of radiocarbon dating, followed by work to analyse the dates and synthesise all the information.

Given the significance of the remains, it was important that we were sure of our conclusions and that they were peer-reviewed before being released.

Have other human remains been found in this area previously?

There have been at least three discoveries of human burials in this area before. The most significant was in 1946 but no detailed records of a find or location were made at the time. Without this detail, we can’t say for certain if these were normal burials that had been disturbed and reburied or whether these too were Scottish prisoners.

Is it possible that there are more mass burials?

We know from the 2013 excavation that the two mass burials discovered then extend north, south and east of the excavated area, under existing buildings and walls.

It is possible that more mass burials exist. Areas now covered by University buildings heading north from the excavation site towards Durham Castle could have been open ground in the early to mid-17 Century.

Are further excavations planned?

No further excavations are currently planned. Excavations would involve disturbing a World Heritage Site and many of the burials are underneath existing buildings and would be impossible to reach. There are also ethical issues concerning the deliberate disturbance of burials that have not been disturbed by building work or other developments.

What additional research was undertaken?

Research on the remains was undertaken by Durham University's Department of Archaeology. The aim was to learn more about where the soldiers came from., their health and what illnesses they suffered from at different stages of their lives.

A 3D facial reconstruction of one of the skulls was carried out by experts at Face Lab which is part of Liverpool John Moores University.

More details on the research programme are available on the Scottish Soldiers Archaeology Project Research Blog.

What is the background to the decisions about reburial and commemoration?

The University had to consider its ethical, moral and legal responsibilities to the remains, as well as information gathered through the consultation period.

The University’s Project Team was mindful that none of the skeletons exhumed are complete as, in keeping with archaeological best practice, only those remains directly affected by the construction work were exhumed.

Given that an estimated 1,700 prisoners from the battle died and were buried in Durham, it is very possible that there are more mass graves under buildings on Palace Green which have been constructed since the soldiers were buried there.

How has Durham University made the decision about reburial and commemoration?

The University undertook extensive consultation to help inform its decision making. This has included meetings with relevant professional bodies, local government, council representatives and other academics. The team also hosted public meetings in Dunbar and Durham, attended by around 250 members of the public. A dedicated email account was also set up to receive comments, suggestions and information from around the world.

The University took all information and feedback into account when making its decisions. The decisions taken were approved by both the University's Executive Committee (UEC) and the University Ethics Advisory Committee. Full details of the decision-making process can be found in the academics paper The Scottish Soldiers: An Analysis of the Options for Reburial

What other options for reburial were considered?

During the consultation some people suggested that reburial of the remains should take place in Scotland, in order to bring the remains ‘home’. The University’s Project Team was presented with case studies from other countries, including Australia, New Zealand and the USA, where remains have been returned for reburial. A number of locations for reburial in Scotland were also suggested.

English law differs from that of the other countries where case studies were highlighted and therefore direct parallels could not be drawn. The Project Team also considered legal precedent, such as that set by the case of England’s King Richard III, where a judicial review ruled that the remains should be reburied close to where they were found, as well as archaeological best practice.

In terms of the case to return the remains ‘home’ to Scotland, research by Durham University has shown that not all the remains exhumed were Scottish and therefore the concept of ‘home’ is not simple.

Ethically, there were also concerns raised through the consultation about the separation of these remains from those which are still buried in Durham.

Other suggestions received were to rebury the soldiers on Palace Green or in Durham Cathedral. However, the terms of the exhumation licence granted by the Ministry of Justicestate the remains must be reburied at a lawful burial site.

There have been no interments of bodies at Durham Cathedral since 1938 meaning it cannot legally be considered for the burial of the remains.

Palace Green is not a lawful burial site so reburial here is not legally possible.

Full details of the decision-making process can be found in the academic paper The Scottish Soldiers: An Analysis of the Options for Reburial.

How were the soldiers commemorated?

Confirmation that the remains found are those of the Scottish soldiers answered an almost 400-year-old mystery as to where the soldiers who died in Durham were buried. In May 2017 Durham University unveiled a commemorative plaque, close to the site where the remains were originally found, which is accessible to visitors to Durham.

Durham Cathedral also updated the wording of the existing plaque dedicated to the soldiers to reflect that the burial place of the soldiers is now known.

When and where were the remains reburied? The remains of the Scottish soldiers were reburied on 18 May 2018 at the Elvet Hill Road Cemetery, which is less than a mile from where the skeletons were originally found. For those wishing to find out more, we have videos available about the planning of the reburial and the reburial service itself.
What happened to those soldiers who survived imprisonment at Durham?

Historical records show that some prisoners were ordered to labour in the North East of England. This labour included work in the salt-pan, linen and coal mining industries.

Others were sent to help drain The Fens in the East of England or to undertake military service in Ireland and France.

Around 150 prisoners were sent to the New England region of America where they were sold to work in sawmills or ironworks as indentured servants.

These men were able to gain their freedom if they saved enough to redeem their sale price or if they worked the full term of their indenture.

Further details on the fate of the soldiers, who survived the Battle of Dunbar, as well and background to the Battle can be found in the paper The Dunbar Diaspora: Background to the Battle of Dunbar and the aftermath of the Battle.