Dig unearths bones of executed criminals

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The Independent Online

Archaeologists have found the gruesome remains of an 18th-century human anatomy exhibition made up of the bones of executed criminals.

Archaeologists have found the gruesome remains of an 18th-century human anatomy exhibition made up of the bones of executed criminals.

Excavations at one of England's earliest laboratories - the old Ashmolean building in Oxford - have yielded 2,050 human bones, 900 animal bones and 30 items of equipment which still retain evidence of the experiments carried out in them.

It is the first time that modern scholars have been able to use archaeology to shed substantial light on science as practised in Britain during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Among the material found are the bones of between 15 and 30 humans, part of a raccoon from North America and the fore-limb of a manatee - the vaguely anthropomorphic sea creature which early sailors thought was a mermaid.

The human bones are mainly from adult males, although skeletal material from three foetuses, an adolescent boy and two women were also found. Known practice and the preponderance of adult males strongly suggest that the bones derived from bodies freed for anatomical dissection by royal decree after executions at Oxford's gallows. The presence of tiny foetal bones and of half a dozen adult skulls which had been neatly sawn in half suggests that complete foetuses and adult brains were displayed in alcohol.

The laboratory, and the museum it formed part of, was built in the early 1680s - but in 1780 it was refurbished and re-equipped. The archaeological investigations suggest that, at or before that refurbishment, substantial parts of the collection were deemed surplus to requirements and were dumped in a ditch between the old Ashmolean building (the world's first purpose-built public museum) and Oxford's city wall.

Historical accounts say that the anatomy collection was housed - and anatomy courses held - in "a small vaulted room under the Ashmolean - well adapted to anatomy on account of its coolness".

The excavation - for a £1.2m lottery-funded expansion of the university's Museum of the History of Science - has demonstrated that dogs were the favoured animals on which early medical students practised. Of the 900 animal bones, 632 were from dogs. A few may well have been terriers or King Charles spaniels. The biggest was probably a hound.

The excavation, by Thames Valley Archaeological Services, has also unearthed a range of 18th-century laboratory objects - the most significant collection of early modern chemistry equipment found archaeologically in Britain. It includes two retorts, a flask, a stoneware bottle and 25 ceramic crucibles which still retain the residues of experiments from more than 220 years ago.

Analysis by Oxford University's Department of Materials found barium sulphate and strontium sulphate, sometimes used in fireworks as flame colorants. That suggests the 18th-century scientists may have been trying to improve the colours produced by fireworks.

Dr Jim Bennett, director of the university's Museum of the History of Science, said: "The bones and chemical vessels have added a significant dimension to the history of science at Oxford University."

"As the only surviving equipment from the first university science laboratory in England, the crucibles and other objects show how experimental work flourished at Oxford in the 17th and 18th centuries."

The finds will go on display later this year.