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St Leonard’s Church, Hythe, Kent

Size of the collection

It was estimated by past historians that the collection represents the remains of some 4,000 people. It is impossible to estimate the number of bones in the stack, but recent work on the skulls has estimated the likely maximum number as 1,200 and the total of individuals represented as 2,000. Even at this level the collection is still unique in this country.

Earliest written and pictorial evidence of the collection

The earliest references to the collection are 1678 by Samuel Jeake, then Town Clerk of Rye, and 1679 by Rev Brome, Chaplain to the Cinque Ports, both of whom described ‘an orderly pile of dead men’s bones’ in the ‘charnel house’ on the north side of the church. The earliest known drawings are dated 1787 depicting piles of skulls and bones inside the south door, and 1820 showing the south-west bay and stack similar to its present appearance. Postcards in the early 1900s with photographs of the crypt show the layout much the same as it is today.

Origins of the collection

There have been many theories over the years as to who the people were and how they came to be resting in the crypt. The 1787 drawing, mentioned above, stated in a footnote that the bones were supposed to be those of ‘Danish pirates slain in a battle’ whilst a handwritten footnote on an 1860s illustration referred to them as ‘men who fell in the Battle of Hastings (1066)’. Another argument said they were Anglo-Saxons killed in battle. It was also thought that the people were victims of the Black Death, but such bodies were usually hastily disposed of in quicklime.

There is no firm evidence to support these theories. Moreover a project from 2009 to 2012 to analyse all the skulls on the shelves has shown that there is a higher proportion of females than males, and nearly 10% of sub-adults (juveniles), whilst only a handful of skulls indicate wounds from blows to the head.

The general consensus now is that they were Hythe residents who died over a long period and had been buried in the churchyard (evidenced by the deposits of soil within the skulls), and that the earliest of the remains were dug up in the 13th century when the church was extended eastwards over their graves by the addition of the large chancel. It is also suggested that the collection includes bones from four other graveyards in the Hythe area that are said to have fallen out of use and closed by 1500.

No accurate evidence for the date of death of the people has been determined, and estimates range from 12th to 15th centuries, though more likely to be 13th century if it coincides with the building of the chancel. This can only be answered definitively by dating some of the bones using modern carbon dating techniques, but this project would require significant funding.

Origins of the people

It will also be useful to try and determine the origin of the people. A study in 1908 to determine the cephalic index – the ratio of maximum breadth of a skull to its maximum length – to indicate race concluded that a significant number were descendants of people originally from Italy, which could indicate a link with Romans, in view of the Roman port at Lympne (Portus Lemanis) or of visiting traders connected with Hythe’s importance as a medieval trading port.

A group of osteologists started an exercise in 2009 to measure the dimensions of the skulls (through the technique of craniometry) to identify, through a worldwide database, the origin of a small number of the skulls. The initial findings indicate the people are local to Kent.

Evidence of disease and injury

A collection such as this provides interesting knowledge about the lifestyle of the people concerned through detailed analysis.

A very small number of skulls reveal injury through sharp blows. One in the south-west bay with a hole right through it (see photograph in this section), which for many years was thought to be a result of trepanning – surgical drilling through the skull – has now been analysed as caused by a sharp object, such as a dagger, because of the radiating fractures inside the skull.

Another skull in the south-west bay shows a severe dent caused by a blunt object such as a stone, whilst a skull in the north-east bay indicates injury from a slicing blow by a sword or similar weapon at the back of the head, which was not immediately fatal and healed over time.

A number of bones indicate breakages during the individual’s lifetime and partial healing, whilst others have evidence of arthritis or bone diseases.

One significant feature of the skulls is the proportion showing evidence of cribra orbitalia, signified by the pin-prick holes in the bone surface around the eye sockets. 22% of the skulls appear to be affected by this, much higher than the 10% recorded for English medieval sites. Cribra orbitalia was a symptom of chronic iron deficiency anaemia related to poor diet or infection, although one theory is that it is an indicator of malaria, which occurred in marshy or swampy areas. Another skull, in the south-east bay, has enlarged eye sockets which would show up as bulging eyes known as Graves’ Disease, caused by an over-active thyroid gland.

The general standard of teeth was good, but many of the back molars were worn down through constantly eating rough food. A small

number indicated abscesses whilst about 10% showed pre-death loss of at least one tooth, which points to lack of dental care/treatment. However, holes in teeth, which today would involve fillings, were non-existent, pointing to a sugar-free diet

Recent and current analysis and study

A number of studies have taken place since 2008 – by staff and post graduate students of Bournemouth University, by an individual degree student, and by St Leonard’s Osteological Research Group (StLORG), an independent group of forensic scientists and osteologists working in the crypt for two weeks each year.

These studies have resulted in new information being provided about a small number of skulls and bones that have distinctive pathological features. Details of these can be found in a folder in the crypt.

StLORG members have completed a three-year project to catalogue and profile all 1,022 skulls in the four bays of shelves, for which we are indebted to them for this valuable work. Information provided from this exercise includes more accurate determination of the sex and age at death of each person, and the identification of distinctive features in the shape and size of particular skulls and of evidence of disease or injury. Information from the studies will help us to follow up future research and analytical projects. StLORG’s poster presentation for a national osteological conference in 2011, which summarised their work and initial findings at that time, is on display in the crypt.

These studies, using the latest forensic analysis and measurement techniques, are overturning some long-held arguments as to the causes of death of particular individuals, through evidence from their skulls or bones. They are also dispelling previous evidence of sex and age of some skulls, including a number in the south-east bay which show male/female symbols in ink from a study over 50 years ago but which now appear to be incorrect sex determination.

Identifying juveniles

These latest analytical techniques have helped to identify a larger number of juveniles in the collection than was previously recognised. The age of young people is primarily identified through the eruption and development of teeth. Two very small skulls in the south-west bay, which were argued for many years as being those of dwarfs, have been confirmed by a forensic odontologist (teeth expert) as being children with ages of four and six-seven years respectively, based on their teeth development.

Care and Conservation

All these studies and activities are undertaken with care and respect for the skulls and bones and follow Church of England and English Heritage guidelines for handling human remains. Gloves are worn when handling any skull or bone in the collection. ‘Do not touch’ signs displayed explain the potential harm that hands touching skulls or bones can do through transfer of sweat or grease.

We are now looking at how best we can preserve the collection for the future based on current conservation and practice, for which our small charge for visitors will help in funding practical work.

Future study

We are discussing with other universities possible areas of research or study, whilst some members of StLORG are continuing with follow-up activities.

Our main aims are to try and ascertain more definitively the origin of the people from analysis of a larger sample of skulls, and to seek a more accurate date of death or timeline of the people. The dating may be assessed from identifying in these bones and skulls diseases that were known to exist in medieval populations.

Click to see the ‘House of Bones’ ITV feature

St Leonard’s Church has the largest and best-preserved collection of ancient human bones and skulls in Britain. The collection consists of shelves in four arched bays that contain 1,022 skulls in total, and a single stack of bones and skulls measuring 7.5m in length, 1.8m in width and just over 1.8m in height. We know that the stack of bones was reassembled on its brick base in 1910.


Crypt now closed to visitors

but re-opens 1st May 2017

However, special arrangements may be made for visitors who book in advance by phoning 01303 264470 and subject to a volunteer steward being available.