Experts at Durham University’s Department of Archaeology, Archaeological Services Durham University and Department of Earth Sciences carried out scientific and observational tests to date the skeletons and establish their identity, detailed in a series of peer-reviewed academic reports.
Given the findings of the scientific tests, placed within the historical context, they concluded that the skeletons found on Durham’s UNESCO World Heritage Site are those of Scottish soldiers from the Battle of Dunbar in 1650.
Key Findings Include:
- 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 (a potential 28 individuals were numbered during excavation and another individual was not exhumed). All of the adults were male and most individuals were aged between 13 and 25, consistent with the theory that this was a soldiers’ grave. It was not possible on visual evidence alone to determine the sex of the adolescents reliably, although four of the older adolescents did look more likely to be male than female.
- Examination of their teeth showed that two individuals had crescent-shaped areas of wear and tear called 'pipe facets' - evidence that they smoked clay pipes. Records show clay pipes became widely available in Scotland from around 1620 and were in common use after 1640 providing a clearer date for when the individuals might have lived.
- Evidence of sinusitis was found in most of the skeletons suggesting they had developed respiratory tract infections due to smoky or polluted air – possibly a result of smoking tobacco.
- Animal gnawing marks were found on bones of two individuals, suggesting the graves were kept open as bodies accumulated, bodies were not immediately buried or they were only lightly covered with soil. Plague was present in Durham in 1589 and later, but given the suggestion the bodies were not immediately covered, and as all the adult skeletons are male and most fall within a narrow age-range, the mass graves are not typical plague victim graves. A location at the heart of the city would also be an unusual place for a plague burial.
- Little sign of high frequencies of healed or unhealed injuries – consistent with the historical evidence that many of the Scottish soldiers were inexperienced in battle and that the severely injured were released immediately after the battle.
- Radiocarbon dating tests - initial results suggested a date range not compatible with the Dunbar battle. A second range of tests looked at two individuals identified as clay pipe smokers, meaning they almost certainly died after the early 17th Century when clay pipe smoking became established in Britain. This fact combined with the radiocarbon date range gained from these samples, gave a date of AD 1625-1660 - consistent with the Dunbar battle.
- Isotopic analysis of strontium, oxygen and lead from tooth enamel samples showed six individuals were compatible with being from Scotland. Another four were compatible with Scotland or Northern England. The lead isotope ratios of one individual meant he was more likely to be Scottish than English, and were uninformative for the others.
- Oxygen isotopic data from tooth enamel samples showed that three individuals were likely to be immigrants to the British Isles with levels consistent with having grown up in more easterly, cooler or higher altitude environments in Europe. Dutchmen (which then included Low Germans) and High Germans were recorded in the Scottish army a few weeks after the Battle of Dunbar, but it’s not clear if they were at the battle itself.
Supporting Academic Papers
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