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Department of Archaeology

The Identification

Analysis carried out on skeletons discovered in a centuries-old mass grave in Durham, UK, led experts to conclude they are the remains of Scottish soldiers taken prisoner after the 1650 Battle of Dunbar.

Researchers at Durham University concluded that the identification of the remains as the Dunbar prisoners was "the only plausible explanation" when scientific data was analysed alongside historical information.

The Battle of Dunbar was one of the most brutal, bloody and short battles of the 17th Century civil wars. In less than an hour the English Parliamentarian army, under the command of Oliver Cromwell, defeated the Scottish Covenanting army who supported the claims of Charles II to the Scottish throne.

Although the exact figures are not known, it is thought that around 1,700 Scottish soldiers died of malnutrition, disease and cold after being marched over 100 miles from the South East of Scotland to Durham, in North East England, where they were imprisoned in Durham Cathedral and Castle, by then disused for several years.

What happened to their bodies has been a mystery for almost 400 years, but the Durham University researchers believe they have begun to solve the puzzle.

In November 2013, during construction of a new café for the University’s Palace Green Library, on the City’s UNESCO World Heritage Site, human remains were uncovered by Durham University archaeologists who were present throughout the building work.

The jumbled skeletons of at least 17 and up to 28 individuals were subsequently excavated from two burial pits (a 29th individual was not exhumed). Researchers carried out a wide range of tests to try and establish their identities.

Experts initially considered that most of the evidence was consistent with the bodies being those of the Scottish soldiers but could not draw a firm conclusion from research conducted in 2014 because initial radiocarbon dating analysis indicated a slightly earlier date of death than the Dunbar battle.

“Taking into account the range of detailed scientific evidence we have now, alongside historical evidence from the time, the identification of the bodies as the Scottish soldiers from the Battle of Dunbar is the only plausible explanation.”

Dr Andrew Millard

However, further radiocarbon dating analysis of four additional samples, which were carefully selected to ensure a more precise result, in combination with the fact that some of the prisoners had smoked clay pipes - known to be in common use in Scotland after 1620 - concluded that the date of death was between 1625 and 1660.

When these dates were combined with the nature of the graves; the results of earlier scientific and observational tests that established the adult skeletons were all male; the fact that the skeletons were predominantly aged between 13-25 years old; and as isotopic analysis showed the skeletons were of likely Scottish origin, all this pointed to their identification as the prisoners from the Dunbar battle.

A team of experts from Archaeological Services Durham University – the University’s commercial archaeology consultancy unit - and academics from the departments of Archaeology and Earth Sciences, worked together to excavate and analyse the skeletons.

The excavation and research were funded by Durham University.

Dr Andrew Millard, senior lecturer with Durham University’s Department of Archaeology, said: "Proving a theory in archaeology involves assembling lots of different types of evidence and piecing the jigsaw together so that we can make an informed assessment.

"When we had the results of the first radiocarbon dating tests we had a very broad date range and were not in a position to draw a definitive conclusion as to the identity of the skeletons, which is why we carried out further tests.

"Taking into account the range of detailed scientific evidence we have now, alongside historical evidence from the time, the identification of the bodies as the Scottish soldiers from the Battle of Dunbar is the only plausible explanation."

“This is an extremely significant find, particularly because it sheds new light on a 365-year old mystery of what happened to the bodies of the soldiers who died.”

Richard Annis

The battle left anywhere between 300 and 5,000 dead. Modern calculations suggest that an estimated 6,000 Scottish soldiers were taken prisoner with about 1,000 of those who were sick and wounded then released to go home.

About 1,000 of the men are believed to have died en route to Durham from a combination of hunger, exhaustion and gastric problems – probably dysentery. Others were executed, while some escaped.

Around 3,000 Scottish soldiers in total were then imprisoned in Durham Cathedral and Castle, at a time when the Cathedral was empty and abandoned, its Dean and Chapter having been evicted and worship suppressed by order of Oliver Cromwell, as was the case with all English Cathedrals at that time.

An estimated 1,700 prisoners from the battle died and were buried in Durham and experts say that there are potentially many more burials nearby.

Richard Annis, senior archaeologist, Archaeological Services Durham University, said: "This is an extremely significant find, particularly because it sheds new light on a 365-year old mystery of what happened to the bodies of the soldiers who died.

"Their burial was a military operation: the dead bodies were tipped into two pits, possibly over a period of days. They were at the far end of what would have been the Durham Castle grounds, as far as possible from the Castle itself - they were out of sight, out of mind.

"It is quite possible that there are more mass graves under what are now University buildings that would have been open ground in the early to mid-17th Century."

The Durham University team and Durham Cathedral worked with partners and interested parties to determine what should happen to the remains of the Scottish soldiers and to plan an appropriate commemoration and reburial services.

A commemorative plaque was unveiled in May 2017 close to where the remains of the Scottish soldiers were discovered.

Following completion of the research work, the remains of the Scottish soldiers were reburied in Durham City on 18 May 2018.

The decisions taken regarding reburial and commemoration of the soldiers followed extensive consultation and consideration of the moral, ethical and legal responsibilities of the University. More information about the decisions taken regarding commemoration and reburial of the soldiers can be found here.

Videos about these decisions, and the commemorative event and the reburial service, can be viewed on our YouTube channel.

Scottish Soldiers Project - Media Release

Scottish Soldiers Project - Media Release

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Tests reveal skeletons found in Durham City UNESCO World Heritage Site are 17th century Scottish soldiers from the Battle of Dunbar.

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