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We spent the day hanging out with 20,000 corpses for London Month of the Dead

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Must… resist… temptation to make ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ comparison…

LONDON Paris has its jaw-dropping bony catacombs, the Czech Republic has its ornate church of skeletons, but in typically British fashion, Londons cathedral to death is far less showy. In fact, it’s on a roundabout.

Yes, the capitals biggest gang of dead people live on a traffic island.

Closed to the public, the Rotunda is a mysterious structure that’s attached to the Barbican complex as part of the Museum of London. It’s where we choose to kick off London Month of the Dead an event that sets out to investigate the capitals relationship with its deceased residents and make five new dead friends (see below).

Now in its third year, the month is marked by a series of morbid musings, from mutant-taxidermy workshops to talks on female necrophilia law and histories of severed heads (all for a good cause: raising money to restore London’s magnificent seven cemeteries).

Having been granted special permission to enter the museums ossuary, the doors open up to rack upon rack of cardboard boxes containing paupers, prostitutes and plague victims, who rub shoulders with nobles, bon viveurs and even a former Bank of England governor.

“You didn’t like one another in life, and now you’re sharing a box.”

None of the 20,000 deceased are less than 100 years dead, due to the Human Tissue Act. But all dating from pre-history through Roman London, the medieval period and up to Victorian England have made their unlikely union here, as a result of the capitals relentless property development.

Its a reflection of a dynamic London its never still, its always changing, says Museum of London curator of human osteology Jelena Bekvalac. “Most [of the collection] dates up to the 1850s when a lot of the cemeteries in London were shut down, because it was all a bit nasty and unpleasant.” (Thats a euphemism for horrific gothic scenes of cemeteries becoming so overcrowded that limbs would protrude from the ground.)

In London, wherever you tread, human remains are rarely far away. When an office block goes up, the land beneath yields its secrets. A mile away, next to Spitalfields Market, investment bankers are supping flat whites in Costa on the ground floor of RBSs offices, oblivious to the enormous plague burial site below them.

RBS offices now stand on the burial grounds of one of the largest medieval cemeteries in Europe, founded in Spitalfields in 1197.

Image: Google street view

When the former grounds of St Mary Spital were unearthed in the late 1990s, some 10,500 individuals were scooped up in what was the single biggest excavation of medieval human remains in the world. In their place lie some well-to-do shops and residences, the inhabitants of which presumably have yet to witness the cautionary tales of former-burial-ground living (see The Shining and Poltergeist).

The excavation was due to a development of the market area, recalls Bekvalac, as she guides us around the Rotunda. Although the excavation covered a large area, it wasnt the entire site. There are still probably burials that are underground in the other half.

The Rotunda: home to a whole lot of dead people.

Image: mashable

Death doesn’t discriminate. Which is why this collection is unique because high class and low class folk, from across the city and spanning centuries, are united here. Nowhere else has anything like it. Next to the people excavated from the Chelsea Old Church (posh) are those from St Brides Workhouse (far from it).

“They’d probably be utterly appalled to think they are in the same vicinity, let alone the same shelf! she says. You didn’t like one another in life and now you’re sharing a box… And some of them might have been unpleasant in life, but I’m a positive person, so I tend to think they’re all lovely.”

Visitors, she says, expect to see skeletons hanging from the ceiling, but instead the imagination is put to work. “It never ceases to amaze me whenever I come in here to think I’m with all these different people from all of these times. You think, ‘wow, what did you do, where did you live?’ she says. Your mind goes round and round making up little stories about them. Its a lovely space.

The pattern of Londons history lies within these boxes.

Image: mashable

Bekvalac uses the word lovely a lot it’s a soothing lyrical tic that takes the chill out of a stroll around Londons warehouse of the dead. It occurs that youd be happy to have her packing your own skeleton into polythene bags.

“I seem to have a penchant for old men with no teeth.”

So, why are these remains kept? Because the bones express what happened to their owners at different periods in history, whether death was through ill health or being unceremoniously bludgeoned. “As we become more urban, we change within the environment we pick up diseases, infections, metabolic disorders like rickets and scurvy, access to food… You begin to see a very distinct variation in peoples status, low or high, and see patterns.”

Some skeletons have names, most do not but all are handled with equal respect. She says: “Just because we dont know their name, doesn’t mean we treat them differently. Because everyone once had a name. But you do get attached to some it’s a bit like doing your own family history, you get to know more about them than your own family.”

Here Bekvalac shares her best dead friends with us:

Gideon

Gideon has a classic elongated head shape, while medieval people’s skulls are more rounded. Why did our skulls change shape over time? Nobody yet knows…

Image: Mashable

First up, we meet Gideon Hand from the celebrity baking family that created the Chelsea bun. Gideon has terrible teeth. “I seem to have a penchant for old men with no teeth,” laughs Bekvalac. “I have a particular liking for some of those from Chelsea Old Church who lived in a lovely market area, known as the ‘village of palaces’, with open spaces. More central parts of London had really awful living conditions, horrible poverty. But these people lived longer they’ve got the buffer of living in a nicer environment.”

“Around this time was an increase in sugar consumption,” she notes of the bakerys 18th century heydey. With the introduction of sweet treats came a rise in tooth decay and people losing their teeth earlier, which affects your overall health and mortality. Gideon, though, lived into his 60s and is hanging on to a few molars, though they’re not the greatest.

Richard a.k.a. Captain Bun

Jelena swoons at the dashing, heroic jawbone of known eccentric, Richard Hand.

Image: mashable

There’s not much left of Richard Hand, who lived into his 80s. But the last surviving member of the Hand family, in his day, swanned around Chelsea in a long coat and fez, as a commissioned officer in the Staffordshire Militia. Gloriously, he was known as Captain Bun.

“So you have this lovely image in your mind, even though I couldn’t find any pictures of him,” says Bekvalac. “There are pictures of the business, because that’s where royalty and other people would go to get their buns.”

The Hands made a mint from Royal patronage of the Chelsea Bun House, which closed in 1839 having laid waste to their dental health.

Image: public domain

“We’re lucky when we have two or three people from the same family. Because of what I’ve been able to learn about them, I’ve created my own character of him wafting around Chelsea, fitting in with the artisans of the area. I like his eccentricity he doesn’t look like someone who conformed.”

Nameless man

This skeleton was found in the Liverpool St Crossrail site, an area known as New Church Yard and Bedlam, where burials spanned the Great Plague.

Image: mashable

“This lovely person, unfortunately we don’t know who they are, but they were excavated at the Liverpool St Station site in 1985. We don’t give the skeletons names,” insists Bekvalac. “We’ll only know the name if we have a coffin plate and generally they will be higher-status individuals.

Crossrail has meant more excavation is being done into the area known as New Church Yard, which was established in 1569. “Initially there would have been single burials there; but as we go into the 1600s, you get different outbreaks of plague, and then you have 1665 and you get these mass graves,” she says.

This individual, aged 36-45, was found in a lead coffin. “There may be something that looks like gout in the big toe, which you might associate with a richer lifestyle. He’s rather lovely in that he’s very complete, though sadly we don’t have the coffin plate.”

Nameless woman

‘We try to read the skeleton to find different markers to formulate an idea of what their life was possibly like,’ says Jelena.

Image: mashable

This lady was resting under Spitalfields Market. “She has very nice cheekbones, a beautiful skull and symmetrical face,” says Bekvalac of the 36-to-45-year-old. “Cheekbones do a lot for ladies. Sadly, when we become post-menopausal, we begin to pick up features that are more male.”

She’s “very medieval” and is dated to 1250-1400: “We might not know this lady’s name, but we can try to sort of reconstruct her life, as much as we can. We don’t always know what has caused their death. If you look closely at her teeth, you will see scarring of the enamel and that’s telling us that there might have been some sort of famine, something’s putting her under stress, or maybe a childhood disease.”

Milborough

Milborough grew up in the West Indies and died in Chelsea in 1807, aged 68.

Image: mashable

“Here she is, a lovely lady,” says Bekvalac, as she plucks out one of her favourite people from the shelf. “Milborough fascinates me, because she’s come from a plantation background (in the West Indies), and it’s an insight into a particular point in time. She died before the abolition of slavery. To know her thoughts on it would be phenomenal.”

Remarkably, a descendent of Milborough once saw the skeleton at an exhibition and was then able to flesh out her life story. In her will, Milborough left her jewellery, but also slaves, to her daughter.

“We find that difficult to get our head around now, so I’d like to ask her lots of questions she’d be a fascinating character. To have grown up there and come back to Chelsea, that would have been quite something.”

In case you were wondering, the relative, while surprised to see their ancestor on display in a glass cabinet, was, says Bekvalac, “happy to know that Milborough was with us.”

Some of the Museum of London skeleton collection will be unboxed for Tunnel: the archaeology of Crossrail in Docklands, Feb. 10 to Sept. 3, 2017.

Read more: http://mashable.com/2016/10/08/london-month-dead-museum-skeletons/

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