Skeletons uncovered in shadow of Durham Cathedral were Scottish soldiers taken prisoner in battle

Dr Anwen Caffell of Durham University with some of the remains.
Dr Anwen Caffell of Durham University with some of the remains.
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Analysis of bones discovered in centuries-old mass grave in Durham has led experts to conclude they are the remains of Scottish soldiers who were taken prisoner after the 1650 Battle of Dunbar.

The skeletons were found by Durham University archeologists when work began on a new cafe of its Palace Green Library, which is within the Unesco World Heritage Site.

Dr Anwen Caffell of Durham University with some of the remains.

Dr Anwen Caffell of Durham University with some of the remains.

The jumbled skeletons of at least 17 and up to 28 individuals were subsequently excavated from two burial pits, with a 29th individual not exhumed.

Since then the researchers have been carrying out a wide range of tests to try and establish their identities.

The university’s researchers concluded the identification of the remains as the Dunbar prisoners was “the only plausible explanation” when scientific data was analysed alongside historical information.

The Battle of Dunbar was one of the most brutal, bloody and short battles of the 17th Century civil wars.

Taking into account the range of detailed scientific evidence we have now, alongside historical evidence from the time, the identification of the bodies as the Scottish soldiers from the Battle of Dunbar is the only plausible explanation.

Dr Andrew Millard, Durham University

In less than an hour the English Parliamentarian army, under the command of Oliver Cromwell, defeated the Scottish Covenanting army who supported the claims of Charles II to the Scottish throne.

Although the exact figures are not known, it is thought that around 1,700 Scottish soldiers died of malnutrition, disease and cold after being marched over 100 miles from the South East of Scotland to Durham, where they were imprisoned in the cathedral and castle, by then disused for several years.

What happened to their bodies has been a mystery for almost 400 years, but the university researchers believe they have begun to solve the puzzle.

Experts initially considered that most of the evidence was consistent with the bodies being those of the Scottish soldiers but could not draw a firm conclusion from research conducted in 2014 because initial radiocarbon dating analysis indicated a slightly earlier date of death than the Dunbar battle.

Park of a skull found in underneath Palace Green in Durham.

Park of a skull found in underneath Palace Green in Durham.

However, further radiocarbon dating analysis of four additional samples, in combination with the fact that some of the prisoners had smoked clay pipes - known to be in common use in Scotland after 1620 - has concluded that the date of death was between 1625 and 1660.

When these dates are combined with the nature of the graves; the results of earlier scientific and observational tests that established the adult skeletons were all male; the fact that the skeletons were predominantly aged between 13 to 25-years-old; and as isotope analysis showed the skeletons were of likely Scottish origin, all this points to their identification as the prisoners from the Dunbar battle.

A team of experts from Archaeological Services Durham University and academics from the departments of Archaeology and Earth Sciences, worked together to excavate and analyse the skeletons.

Dr Andrew Millard, senior lecturer with the university’s department of archaeology, said: “Proving a theory in archaeology involves assembling lots of different types of evidence and piecing the jigsaw together so that we can make an informed assessment.

Tests have revealed skeletons found in Durham City UNESCO World Heritage Site are 17th century Scottish soldiers.

Tests have revealed skeletons found in Durham City UNESCO World Heritage Site are 17th century Scottish soldiers.

“When we had the results of the first radiocarbon dating tests we had a very broad date range and were not in a position to draw a definitive conclusion as to the identity of the skeletons, which is why we carried out further tests.

“Taking into account the range of detailed scientific evidence we have now, alongside historical evidence from the time, the identification of the bodies as the Scottish soldiers from the Battle of Dunbar is the only plausible explanation.”

The Durham University team, with Durham Cathedral, will be working with partners and interested parties to determine what will happen to the remains of the Scottish soldiers, and an appropriate commemoration.

These discussions are likely to include the Church of Scotland, since the prisoners would have been predominantly Scottish Presbyterians.

Remembrance prayers will be said at Durham Cathedral tomorrow, the anniversary of the Battle of Dunbar.

Archaeologists with the remains on site, at the time of discovery.

Archaeologists with the remains on site, at the time of discovery.