Identity revealed of human remains found at York Barbican
Researchers believe they have discovered the identity of a centuries-old skeleton discovered at York Barbican.
The remains of the woman were uncovered in 2007 during excavations at what was once All Saints Church on the site of the Barbican.
Not found in the cemetery alongside the others skeletons in the collection, this medieval woman was buried in a tightly crouched position within the apse of the church foundations. An apse is a small room located behind the altar.
Only clergy or the very rich were buried inside churches at this time, so the location of this highly unusual burial makes the skeleton a prime candidate to be that of the All Saints’ anchoress, Lady Isabel German.
An anchoress is a type of religious hermit. Lady German is documented to have lived at All Saints Church in Fishergate during the 15th century.
She chose to live a life of seclusion. Living inside a single room of the church without direct human contact, she would have devoted herself to prayer and accepted charity to survive.
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Her remains are among 667 complete skeletons in a collection held by the University of Sheffield.
Researchers from there and Oxford Archaeology uncovered the Lady German story.
It will be the focus of a new episode of Digging for Britain, to be broadcast on Sunday 12th February at 8pm on BBC Two.
Osteoarchaeologist Dr Lauren McIntyre used radiocarbon dating and isotopic investigation to examine the skeleton.
She said: “The location of the skeleton in the apse suggests this was a woman of high status, but the crouched burial position is extremely unusual for the medieval period.
“The lab research also shows the woman buried at All Saints Church was living with septic arthritis and also advanced venereal syphilis.
“This would have meant she lived with severe, visible symptoms of infection affecting her entire body, and later on, neurological and mental health decline.
“Lady German lived in a period of history where we typically think of there being a strong association between visible and disfiguring illnesses and sin, with that type of suffering seen as a punishment from God.
“While it is very tempting to suggest that someone with visible disfiguring disease would be shunned or want to commit to living as an anchoress as a way to hide from the world, this research has shown that this might not be the case.
“Such severe disease could also have been viewed positively, being sent by God to grant martyr-like status to someone special.”
York skeleton collection
Becoming an anchoress in the 15th century, when women would realistically have been expected to get married, and become the property of their husband, could also give them an alternative, and important status in both their community and the male-dominated Church.
Dr McIntyre added: “The new study data allows us to explore the possibilities that Lady German chose to devote herself to a life of solitude as a way to remain autonomous and in control of her own destiny.
“This chosen lifestyle would also have made her a highly significant figure within the local community, and she would have been viewed almost like a living prophet.”
Lady German’s skeleton makes up one of the hundreds of full and partial remains excavated from the site at York Barbican, and now held in the University of Sheffield. Most of the remains are of local residents as the site developed through the ages.
Dr Lizzy Craig-Atkins, senior lecturer in human osteology at the University of Sheffield, said: “The York Barbican collection is the largest we currently curate at Sheffield.
“Its excellent preservation, highly detailed archaeological excavation and recording by Oxford Archaeology and very long period of use, which spans the Roman period to the Civil War in the 17th century, provides our post-graduate researchers and visiting archaeologists around the country with an extraordinary learning resource.
“It will continue to provide new insights about the world and lifestyles of the people of York throughout history and Dr McIntyre’s analysis goes to show how extraordinary they can be.
“The collection has given us the opportunity to investigate a type of life rarely reflected in archaeological records.”