Male skeleton 21289 was one of 18 individuals buried in the church, being in a line of male burials running along the centre of the nave. Aged 60+ years, the skeleton was radiocarbon dated to 1245-1400 cal AD. Analysis of isotopes indicated an individual who had originated from the locality and had a diet rich in proteins, probably deriving from marine and freshwater fish and animal sources. Notably, this skeleton had fully penetrating sharp force trauma involving their skull, the entire length of their posterior vertebral column, some ribs and the manubrium. None of the wounds had healed, indicating that they had been delivered around the time of the individual’s death (peri-mortem).
The same skeleton had lesions consistent with Paget's disease, a condition which causes increased bone turnover and results in enlarged, poor quality bone which is weaker than normal and may become deformed and break more easily. The cause of this disease is still not known, but it tends to run in families and can be more prevalent in certain geographical locations. There is nothing to suggest that the Paget’s disease was necessarily related in some way to the trauma.
The trauma itself is highly unusual. It appears to be the first example of its type from medieval Britain. While some of the skull and rib cuts may be paralleled, the spinal modifications are not. In fact, the pattern of modification is remarkably similar to later 18th- and 19th-century archaeological examples of post-mortem investigation, or more specifically, a laminectomy performed following death to explore the structures of the vertebral column.
In keeping with this procedure, the cuts to the spine in the present case are very precise, line up with each other and are continuous, suggesting pre-meditated sectioning of the bone shortly following the individual’s death to gain access to the soft tissue structures of the spine. Further, the cut on the manubrium could potentially be associated with the removal of organs from the thoracic cavity.
While anatomisation or autopsy is a plausible explanation for the trauma, such procedures were not commonplace before the Enlightenment, especially as, during the medieval period, there was a strong ethos that bodily integrity should be maintained after death. If the explanation is indeed the correct one, the skeleton represents the earliest physical evidence of anatomisation or dissection ever identified in the country.