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Fascinating stories unearthed at crypt

The ossuary in St Aidan's Church crypt in Bamburgh.
The ossuary in St Aidan's Church crypt in Bamburgh.

In St Aidan’s Church in Bamburgh is a crypt, currently not open to the public.

It contains a stone mass clock, five carved stone heads, the tombs of the Forster family and amphibian wildlife. More recently has been the addition of an ossuary.

It is one of only three UK ossuaries, or ‘bones stores’, and holds skeletons excavated from the Bowl Hole, a Christian burial ground at the foot of Bamburgh Castle, dating from 650 to about 800AD.

The remains of 120 individuals are stored in zinc boxes. The boxes are unnamed, the bones unmarked, so that requests to access specific remains cannot be satisfied – they are inaccessible and at peace.

However, data from isotope analysis established the gender, ethnicity, diet and approximate age of each one. This revealed skeletons from Northumbria, Scotland, Ireland, France, Italy, Scandinavia – only 10 per cent were from Bamburgh. The people were healthy, tall and artisans and tradespeople connected to the castle.

They include a woman with ‘weaver’s bottom’ and a nick in her front teeth from holding yarn; a nine-year-old child who migrated from North Africa through France to Bamburgh; Scandinavians buried in an East to West crouching position, thought to be pagan; and a 17-year-old boy with no head and a sword cut. One male from Iona dated from 650AD, a contemporary of St Oswald.

Bamburgh Heritage Trust and Bamburgh Research Project have, with backing from Durham University and Jessica Turner from the Northumberland Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty Partnership, submitted a £450,000 bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) for a three-year project to bring the stories to life. If successful, Bamburgh could host the UK’s first interactive digital ossuary.

Isotope data would be available, a film would feature stories of seven ‘characters’, and there could be quiet contemplation. Intellectual access would be provided in the church for those unable to access the crypt.

The future of the crypt may change, but one thing that remains unaltered for nearly 1,500 years is the status of Bamburgh as a draw for travellers and a place of which Northumbrians can be proud.