Archaeology and Birmingham Cathedral: People from the Past by guest blogger Dr Mike Hodder
Most archaeological work investigates things people left behind them- what they built and the objects they used- from which we can deduce how they lived. When the remains of actual people from the past are affected by new development, we can show them due respect by properly recording their remains before reburial. Archaeologists recorded burials, vaults and memorials during landscaping works around the Cathedral in 2000-2001. Only those burials that would be disturbed by the landscaping works were excavated and examined; the others were left in place.
Excavated Harrison Vault
Methods of burial at the cathedral tell us about social standing, grave memorials tell us about attitudes to death, and analysis of skeletons tell us about living conditions in eighteenth and nineteenth century Birmingham. In some cases actual individuals are known from name plates on their coffins. The information from burials at the cathedral can be compared with that from burials excavated at St Martins as part of the Bull Ring. They also show what might be derived from archaeological excavation of Park Street Gardens Burial Ground which is affected by the new Curzon Station for HS2 High Speed Rail.
Birmingham Cathedral lies outside the historic centre of Birmingham, a medieval town around St Martin’s church, where all Birmingham’s dead were buried from the 12th century until the construction of St Philip’s Church (later to become the cathedral) in the eighteenth century. About 80,000 people were buried in the cathedral churchyard. It was closed to new burials in 1885 because of crowding and insanitary conditions, but new interments could still take place in existing vaults and brick-lined graves. The burial ground originally extended beyond its present boundaries before the widening of Temple Row and Temple Row West.
People were buried in coffins alone, in brick lined graves or shafts which contained coffins stacked on top of each other and were covered by stone slabs, and in brick vaults. The coffins could be wooden, wooden with a lead lining, or lead between two layers of wood.
The Harrison family vault on the Colmore Row side of the churchyard was emptied because it was to become the location of a new entrance to the churchyard. It contained eight coffins and the people buried in them could be identified from name plates or deduced from the location of the coffins in relation to each other, and written records of the family. The older family members had poor teeth and osteoarthritis.
Skeletons from other burials included bowed bones resulting from rickets and teeth with a groove from clenching a pipe. Burials included adults and children, and there were many loose bones resulting from later burials being dug through earlier unmarked graves.
Burials continued at St Martin’s after St Philip’s was built. 857 burials dating from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were excavated here in 2001 as part of the Bullring development. Park Street Gardens was in use during the nineteenth century as an overspill burial ground for St Martins. People buried here lived at the time when Birmingham rose to international significance. Most of the burials are still in place.
Park Street Burial Ground and HS2 Curzon Street excavations
The archaeological work around the Cathedral in 2000-2001 was carried out by Birmingham University Field Archaeology Unit on behalf of Birmingham City Council and was directed by Chris Patrick. His detailed report is at:
Dr Mike Hodder, Archaeologist
Archaeological Advisor to the Birmingham Diocesan Advisory Committee