The skeletons of scores of medieval pilgrims who came to the shrine of St Chad in Lichfield but died without receiving the miracle healing they hoped for are being excavated on the site of an ancient hospital that provided accommodation for travellers.

At least 50 startlingly well preserved and neatly buried skeletons were uncovered during development work to build apartments on the site of the 12th-century St John’s hospital, which still provides sheltered accommodation for elderly people.

Stuart Palmer, of Archaeology Warwickshire, which obtained a licence from the justice ministry for an emergency exhumation of the remains, said that although uncovering medieval human remains was relatively common, finds associated with known pilgrimage sites were far more unusual.

Skulls are being studied by experts at Archaeology Warwickshire.
Skulls are being studied by experts at Archaeology Warwickshire. Photograph: Archaeology Warwickshire/Warwickshire county council

“The remains are currently being processed … and, once cleaned, will be aged and sexed and examined for signs of injury, disease, dietary deficiency and other pathologies,” he said. “These tests can often reveal fascinating aspects of life, medical practice and life expectancy in medieval populations. This could provide us with a truly fascinating window into the past.”

The shrine of St Chad, a Northumbrian saint who died of plague in AD672, stood at the heart of the church that became Lichfield cathedral. It became a major pilgrimage site, attracting the devout from across Britain and overseas. It was broken up in the dissolution of the monasteries and the relics scattered – although bones claimed to be the saint’s turned up a century later and are now preserved at Lichfield and at Birmingham cathedral. A spectacularly carved limestone angel, believed to have been part of the tomb, was discovered in 2006.

St John’s hospital was built just outside one of the main medieval gates of the city because travellers who arrived after dark would not have been allowed in.

The study of the remains may reveal the conditions that brought the pilgrims to the shrine.

This article titled “Skeletons of medieval pilgrims found in Lichfield” was written by Maev Kennedy, for theguardian.com on Monday 14th September 2015 16.01 UTC

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