Analysis of the Human Bone by Diana Mahoney Swales


During archaeological work undertaken within the yard to the rear of the Upper Chapel, four east-west aligned graves were identified. The graves were excavated due to the risk of disturbance and four skeletons, numbered 1 to 4, were recovered. Documentary resources and a gravestone survey provide a date span between 1717-1858, making these burials contemporary with those recovered from the Methodist Chapel at Carver Street (McIntyre and Willmott 2003) and Sheffield Cathedral (O'Neill et al. 2007).


The skeletal remains of SK[1], SK[2], SK[3], and SK[4] were examined to determine preservation, completeness, age and sex. The presence of pathological lesions and their potential for further analysis was also assessed. In accordance with osteological standard practice, 'preservation' is taken to mean the condition of the bone i.e. how well it has survived the decaying process and external environmental factors, such as soil type and bioturbation. To quantify the condition of each skeleton, the Institute of Field Archaeologists criteria for recording cortical bone erosion and abrasion in Guidelines to the Standards for Recording Human Remains: IFA Paper No. 7 (McKinley 2004, 17) was utilised.

The subadult skeletons were aged by dental development (Moorees et al. 1963; Ubelaker 1989), epiphyseal fusion (Bass 1987; Schwarz 1995) and diaphyseal long bone length (Scheuer et al. 1980; Hoppa 1992). No attempt was made to sex the subadults, in accordance with accepted osteological practice.

Unfortunately, the fragmentary nature and poor condition of the adult skeletal remains meant that no sex or age diagnostic characteristics had survived. Therefore, no further information, save for an educated estimation that they were adults, based on the overall size and cortical thickness of the long bone diaphyses, could be ascertained.

Condition of the bone and nature of the assemblage


SK[1] was 50-74% complete and was composed of almost all cranial vault bones, right scapula, long bone shafts of upper and lower limbs, ribs and a few vertebral bodies and arches. The bone was in poor condition and exhibited Grade 4 cortical erosion. Plate 1.

SK[2] was 75-100% complete and in excellent condition. Almost all skeletal elements, including the hyoid bone, were recovered. No cortical erosion (Grade 0) was observed. The bone exhibited dark organic staining. Plate 2.

SK[3] was less than 24% complete. All that survived was the shaft of the left humerus and very corroded fragments of humerus, femur and tibia. All the bone was destroyed, exhibiting Grade 5 cortical erosion. Plate 6.

SK[4] was less than 24% complete with only femoral and tibial shaft fragments surviving. This surviving bone was in poor condition and exhibited Grade 4 cortical erosion. Plate 8.

Age and sex

SK[1] was an infant, aged approximately between 6-9 months.

SK[2] was a young child aged 3-4 years. These ages were ascertained via epiphyseal union and fusion of primary ossification centres, long bone lengths and rates of dental eruption and development. Following standard osteological practice, no sex classification was assigned to these subadults.

The size of the long bone shafts recovered for SK[3] and SK[4] indicate that both individuals were adults, with SK[4] being the more gracile of the two. However, there are no surviving epiphyses to support this interpretation. No sex diagnostic characteristics have survived for these two skeletons.


A preliminary assessment of the four skeletons failed to identify any palaeopathological lesions. The only observations made were heavy striations on the endocranial surface of the occipital of infant SK[1], and post-mortem pink staining on the interior surfaces of femur and tibia fragments of adult SK[3]. Staining on the cervical margins of the teeth of SK[2] suggested the presence of slight calculus; however, no mineralised plaque deposits survived to confirm this.

Associated finds

The presence of coffin nails, upholstery studs, shroud fragments, shroud pins, and coffin wood, corresponds with contemporary cemeteries in Sheffield such as the Methodist Chapel at Carver Street (McIntyre and Willmott 2003) and Sheffield Cathedral (O'Neill et al. 2007), whereby individuals were interred in upholstered coffins, shrouds or funerary dress fastened by wrapped-headed shroud pins.

X-ray fluorescence (XRF) analysis of the shroud pins recovered from the Upper Chapel demonstrates they are manufactured from brass. The particular type used is known colloquially as 'yellow brass' and has properties most suitable for the manufacture of thin wire and pins (see Shroud Pins). Within the commonly cited literature about Victorian burial (Cox 1998; Fritz 1995; Litten 1991; Richmond 1999) there is either no mention of the shroud pins or their material or they are described as brass (Reeve and Adams 1993) or simply copper alloy (Brickley et al. 2006).The dearth of detailed published information prevents definitive interpretation as to whether the use of such 'yellow brass' is an economic, temporal or stylistic decision. All the shroud pins recovered from contemporary intra-mural burial grounds in Sheffield were manufactured from copper alloy, but it is not known if they were 'yellow brass'. Indeed a number of shroud pins recovered from Carver Street were recorded as 'copper alloy...with a tinned surface', which would have resulted in a silvered effect (McIntyre and Willmott 2003, 21). Documentary research and the gravestone survey indicate that the Upper Chapel was active for a slightly longer period (1723-1854) than the other excavated burial grounds; therefore, it is possible that the general use of 'yellow brass' was more common in Sheffield in the early 18th century. Alternatively, there is the slight possibility that some of the copper alloy pins were originally 'yellow brass' but were too heavily eroded and oxidised to determine their original colour, and that the presence of 'yellow brass' pins at the Upper Chapel are a consequence of exceptional levels of preservation.

The coffins

The exceptional preservation environment afforded by the waterlogged clay is further demonstrated by well-preserved coffins [114] and [214] also recovered during excavation. Coffin [114] contained a young child SK[2], and coffin [214] contained an adult of undeterminable sex SK[4]. Both were single-break (angled at the shoulder) flat-lidded coffins, with [114] being in miniature. No nails were recovered either from the fill surrounding these two coffins or from within the wood structure, and there were no dovetailing or mortise and tenon joints indicating the use of a pitch or glue to stick the sides, base and lids together. Both have a separate ridge of wood located upon the outer rim of the superior edge of the circumference of the coffin. The lid would sit comfortably within this ridge, forming a seal. The excellent preservation of coffin [114] enabled the method of construction to be identified, and it confirmed that the sides were internally kerfed at the shoulders then bent into shape, as was typical for the standard single-break (angled at the shoulder) flat-lidded coffin (Litten 1998, 90). Wood identification analysis indicated that coffin [114] was constructed from oak sides and lid, which tree-ring analysis suggests were all derived from a single, possibly imported, tree and with an ash base (see Coffin Wood). The use of oak for the coffin is another probable indication of wealth among the community interred within the yard of the Upper Chapel. Litten (1991, 90) identified that elm was traditionally used for constructing coffins, whereas oak was only occasionally used 'for exceptionally important interments' in the 1700s. Work on a number of Nonconformist burial grounds has identified that excessive displays of wealth were regarded as being in opposition to Nonconformist beliefs and values, and as a consequence displays of wealth and/or status were not made through elaborate coffin furnishings and fittings, but through the use of expensive materials in the construction of the basic coffin (Mahoney 2005, 35; Sayer and Symonds 2004, 58).

Both Janaway (1998, 23) and Litten (1991, 92) document the use of sawdust and/or bran to absorb liquid and odour from the body's decomposition during the period when the Upper Chapel burial ground was in use. Sawdust was also observed in coffins excavated at the Quaker burial ground in Bathford (Stock 1998, 149), indicating its acceptance in non-conformist burial practices. The deposit of woodchips [115] below coffin [114] within cut [108] may have been employed in a similar fashion to absorb any odours or liquid matter that may exude from within the coffin into the surrounding grave fill. This would keep the interior of the coffin clear for purposes of display, if the coffin were to be left open prior to burial, as was commonly practiced (Houlbrook 1998; Jalland 1996).


Under the terms of the Burial Act 1857, the Disused Burial Grounds Act (Amendment) 1981, and the exhumation licences granted to ARCUS by the Department of Constitutional Affairs, the remains (four skeletons, of which three were incomplete or poorly preserved), were re-interred in August 2007 at the City Road Cemetery, Sheffield.


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