The clerics, the resurrectionists and the walrus

5 September 2013

Ramboll’s archaeology team recently received international media coverage following discovery of the remains of a Pacific walrus found buried among human skeletons in a churchyard near  St Pancras Railway Station in London.

Contacts

Nicki Marsh. Ramboll

Nicki Marsh

Head of Marketing & Communications, UK
T: +44 7918 151 074

Our extensive programme of archaeological monitoring was commissioned in 2001, ahead of the construction of St Pancras International, where High Speed 1 now terminates.

St Pancras Old Church Burial Ground

The largest single piece of archaeological work at the site took place between May 2002 and June 2003 at the southern part of the former burial ground of St Pancras Old Church, in use between 1793 and 1854, which lay beneath the existing railway embankment.

The site needed to be cleared to make way for construction of both an extended platform deck to accommodate the 400m-long Eurostar trains and the burrowing junction connecting to the Thameslink Box. A total of 1383 well-preserved burials, including the remains of two senior French clerics who both died in London in exile following the Revolution, were recorded by an archaeological team led by Phil Emery.

Faunal remains

Intriguingly, four of the coffins were found to contain not only human bones, which had been subject to dissection, but also faunal remains. A carapace of a tortoise was found in one of these coffins, but another contained the most curious find – eight bones from the left fore-limb and left hind-limb of a very large walrus.  

All the bones are considerably larger than their equivalents at the National History Museum in London and are most likely from the same adult animal. The size suggests that this was a large male Pacific walrus, with definitely identified knife cuts signalling that they had been prepared for display and study.

Alongside the walrus remains were dissected human bones representing at least eight individuals, including three human skulls exhibiting cranial autopsy. The interment of human and animal bone together would seem to reflect a common source and their pragmatic disposal. The coffins were located within the mass burial trenches which were prevalent in the southern part of the Third Ground sometime after November 1822.

The 'resurrection men'

Illicit post-mortem surgery on human specimens, perhaps involving grave-robbing, may have been involved. Prior to the 1832 Anatomy act, the only socially sanctioned source of corpses for surgeons and anatomists was the produce of the gallows. This supply did not meet the demands of the 40 anatomy schools in London at that time. Although only the bodies of executed criminals were formally handed over to the Company of Barber Surgeons and its successors, dissection of other bodies was never expressly forbidden.

Body snatchers or ‘resurrection men’ took advantage of the lax management of St Pancras burial ground and other cemeteries in London in the 18th and 19th centuries. Paupers’ burial trenches in particular were easy prey, providing grave-robbers with several items at a time.

The trade of resurrectionists arose from a shortage of bodies, other than those of the hanged prior to the Anatomy Act of 1832, when unclaimed bodies from London’s workhouses and other mortuaries became more easily available to surgeons and anatomists.

Despite the trade’s grisly nature it was seen as a necessary evil, with the most vocal opposition to its activities coming from the poorer members of society who were most likely to end up on the anatomists’ slabs. As a result, anatomy schools were sometimes attacked by mobs and protestors and were targeted by legal prosecutions.

'On The Anatomy of a Walrus'

In January 1853, tantalisingly within the date range of the St Pancras find (1822-1854), a Professor Owen recorded the dissection of a walrus in his paper, entitled ‘On the Anatomy of a Walrus’, which was published in the Journal of Zoology. 

Phil Emery comments: ‘These pioneering anatomists were polymaths, working on both human and animal subjects, and gripped by a sense of scientific adventure. Owen’s vivid account was published six years before Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’ when overarching systems for explaining human and animal evolution were still very controversial. In this respect it is ironic that the limbs of a walrus may have been mistaken for those of a human among the disused specimens in an anatomist’s laboratory.

Publication of a highly detailed account of this meticulous and valuable work

A book has been published about the archaeological findings,‘St Pancras burial ground – Excavations for St Pancras International, the London terminus of High Speed 1, 2002-3’  by Phillip A Emery and Kevin Wooldridge. It is an excellent example of interdisciplinary research that can work from the level of the individual right up to patterns of development of space and a time of centuries. It is an excellent example of what can be achieved with effective excavation recording with dedicated and insightful post-excavation analysis by a highly professional team led by the two main authors:

Publisher: Gifford, Part of Ramboll;
Har/Cdr edition (15 Oct. 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0956940609
ISBN-13: 978-0956940605

Images courtesy of Museum of London and High Speed 1.

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