3.3 The Unitarian burial ground in the context of 18th- and 19th-century Sheffield

The four graves present within the footprint of the electricity substation and associated service trench are obviously only a very small proportion of the 160 plus graves recorded by the burial plans and registers as being located within the precincts of the Upper Chapel. The damp and waterlogged soil conditions had resulted in varied preservation conditions across the site, which affected the four skeletons contained within separate coffins found in the excavated graves. Only one of these graves was fully excavated and was found to contain two skeletons. Owing to the damp soil conditions, fragmentary remains only were discovered of both SK[1] and the coffin in which it had been buried, while the waterlogged conditions deeper down the grave had resulted in the virtually intact survival of the lower coffin of SK[2]. The coffin interior had retained water, which preserved the contents in good condition and allowed their complete retrieval. Of the other three graves, two were barely impacted upon and no burials were discovered within the excavated depth. A portion of the fourth grave was partially excavated; fragmentary remains survived of SK[3] and SK[4] and their associated coffins, again due to the damp soil conditions, although the lower coffin demonstrated better preservation, suggesting that waterlogged conditions may exist deeper down the grave.

The pottery derived from the excavated fills suggests an 18th- or early 19th-century date for the graves, but with a small residual component of sherds dating from the 13th to the 17th century, which is what would be expected on a town site that had been in continuous use from the medieval period. The clay tobacco pipe also supports this 18th- or early 19th-century date, although again, with a residual component dating from the 17th century. The date of the material culture excavated from the graves reflects both the documentary evidence from the burial records, which record the date span of burials as 1723 to 1854, and the evidence on the legible inscriptions recorded during the gravestone survey of the chapel yard, which give a date span of 1717 to 1858.

This dating evidence makes the Unitarian burial ground of the Upper Chapel contemporary with other excavated cemeteries within Sheffield, such as the Methodist Chapel at Carver Street (McIntyre and Willmott 2003) and Sheffield Cathedral (O'Neill et al. 2007). The Upper Chapel differs greatly from either of these two cemeteries, however, in that there were far fewer burials compared to these larger cemeteries. The earliest burial records demonstrate that the cemetery associated with the former parish church of St Peter and St Paul (later the Cathedral) was in use as a burial ground from at least the 16th century until the passing of the Burial Act in 1855. As a major parish church belonging to the Church of England, the cemetery witnessed a phenomenal number of burials – there were, for example, 34,186 records of burials at the church between 1813 and 1855 alone. The Methodist Chapel at Carver Street was constructed in 1805 and was the largest of its kind in Sheffield. The cemetery was regarded as the only major burial ground for the Nonconformist population of Sheffield during the first half of the 19th century (Hunter 1869). The burial records span the period between 1806 and 1855 and witnessed the burial of an estimated 1,600 inhumations (Witkin and Belford 2000).

Archaeological evidence from 18th- and 19th-century burials within all three of these cemeteries has demonstrated that graves were regularly reused during this period, with multiple 'stacked' burials within the same grave cut. How far this was just the reuse of the graves in the context of family plots or was instead due to overcrowding is unclear from the archaeological evidence at Sheffield Cathedral and the Methodist Chapel at Carver Street. At Sheffield Cathedral the original level of the graveyard had been greatly affected by modern construction during the 20th century and none of the grave slabs recorded during the gravestone survey were in their original locations so could not be related to any specific graves. There was also poor preservation of coffin nameplates at Sheffield Cathedral, meaning that the name of only one individual could ever be identified within any one grave. The preservation of coffin nameplates was slightly better from the Methodist Chapel at Carver Street and two legible nameplates from within the same grave both had the same surname. There was a widely documented lack of space within 19th-century burial grounds that led to severe overcrowding, however, and the passing of the 1855 Burial Act prevented further interment within inner-city cemeteries. The excavated graves from Sheffield Cathedral certainly demonstrate that a lack of respect was shown to earlier burials during later inhumations, with burials being pushed aside while the bodies and coffins were still in an early state of decomposition, or previous burials being removed during re-excavation of the grave and then replaced around the edges of the coffin belonging to the later inhumation.

The reuse of graves at the Upper Chapel, however, appears to have occurred only within the context of family plots. The location of the gravestones at the time of survey corresponded with the location of the original burials that they related to. Indeed, further corroboration is given by the fact that the location of the gravestones had certainly not changed since the 1900 plan, showing that the graveyard had been preserved unaffected by modern intrusions. It is assumed that the gravestones originally stood upright, as inscriptions were always at the top of the stone. Evidence from the excavation of the four graves demonstrates that in three cases the position of a gravestone corresponded almost exactly with a grave underneath, and in the last case of a family plot with a double grave two gravestones had been mounted on the wall of the chapel directly adjacent to the location of the plot.

Evidence from excavation demonstrates that respect was shown to the earlier burials when re-excavating the graves for the deposition of later inhumations. In all cases the re-excavation of the graves appears to have revealed the coffin underneath but did not disturb it. The complete lack of any disarticulated human remains within the grave fills or the graveyard soil and general overburden above appears to indicate that, in general, burials had not been disturbed. Although only a small part of the graveyard was excavated, it is unusual not to find any disarticulated human bone. The situation was completely different at both Sheffield Cathedral and the Methodist Chapel at Carver Street, where considerable quantities of disarticulated human remains were discovered. It is clear that there appeared to be no issues of overcrowding affecting the burial ground at the Upper Chapel; presumably this is mainly due to the comparatively small number of people who wished, or were permitted, to be interred at this Nonconformist chapel.

There is a possibility that a greater percentage of the people buried at the Upper Chapel were of a higher or wealthy social status than those interred at either Sheffield Cathedral or the Carver Street Methodist Chapel. Skeletal evidence from the excavated burials at Sheffield Cathedral clearly showed the interred individuals to derive from a working-class background, and the evidence from the coffin fittings supports this as they were in the main highly decorated fittings that were fashionable in the 19th century and could be mass produced at a relatively inexpensive cost. Inhumations at the Methodist Chapel at Carver Street represented a good cross-section of Sheffield's 19th-century population, with both significant public figures and members of the working class being interred. Evidence from the gravestone survey at the Upper Chapel, however, demonstrates that several Unitarian ministers from the chapel were buried in the graveyard, as were members of prominent local families, such as the Sylvester family, including Field Sylvester, who owned the Sylvester Wheel and associated cutlery works on the River Porter.

The evidence from the intact coffin also supports the suggestion that some of those buried here were of a comparatively high social status. The majority of the intact coffin was made from oak, which was a more expensive wood than many other alternatives, and only the base was made from less expensive ash, presumably because the base could not be seen and gave the illusion of a top-quality expensive coffin. Dendrochronological analysis of the oak demonstrated that the rather fine oak timbers were all derived from the same tree and they had possibly been imported. This reflects the results of the dendrochronological analysis of the waterlogged coffins from the Methodist Chapel at Carver Street, which were also single-break (angled at the shoulder) coffins constructed from mainly oak, although the bases of these coffins were constructed from pine, and there was also a coffin constructed completely from elm. These coffins also demonstrated internal matching within oak timbers which, although could not be dated, suggests that they were imported.

There is also the evidence from the coffin fittings and grave goods to be considered. No ornate coffin fittings were recovered from the graves, even though the recovery of coffin nails and upholstery studs demonstrates that conditions existed for preservation. Again, this may represent a sample bias as a result of the small number of burials excavated. This lack of ornate coffin fittings differs from the situation at both Sheffield Cathedral and the Carver Street Methodist Chapel, where numerous ornate coffin fittings were recovered. Many Nonconformists, particularly Quakers, regarded excessive displays of wealth to be in opposition to their beliefs and as a consequence the display of wealth was not through elaborate coffin furnishings and fittings but through the use of expensive materials in the construction of the basic coffin (Mahoney 2005).


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