VSS Project at the Museum of London

Project members inspect the bones from St Stephen's Chapel at the Museum of London.

One unexpected joy of working on the St Stephen’s Project is the chance to meet so many others whose work is fascinating and world-expanding for my own. In mid-December, and when I went back in early January, we were lucky enough to be able to visit the Museum of London, which holds the widest range yet of material about the chapel. For me the best part was the bones excavated from deep underneath the chapel in the early 1990s, but it was also a chance to look at a medieval tile, watercolours, and carved stones, which had been acquired at various points from different owners. And we trawled through file folders full of archaeological data from the excavations in the 1990s in and around the chapel site. Fragile tracing paper makes modern digital plans seem even more miraculous…

What about these fabulous bones? They are in three boxes among the 17,000 sets of human remains looked after by the Museum of London, all from the London area. We already knew that at least ten members of the college had asked to be buried in the lower chapel, and so when human bones came up on the archaeological reports I immediately wondered if they were really the canons of St Stephen’s that I’ve spent so long with in record form. The bones were found covered in concrete about 7 or 8 feet beneath the chapel, probably dumped there by Victorian workmen as they began the work of rebuilding the palace after the 1834 fire. There are lots of little fragments, bits of arm and leg bones, some skulls, one rib and one vertebra.

Most exciting for me, were the jaws - they made the people seem real and tangible in a way that they never are on the parchment rolls at the National Archives. They had dental trouble, wore down their teeth with coarse food, and even overdosed on sugar as seen in one poor chap who’d lost all of his teeth well before his death. They were human. The original testing said that the bones were probably all from the college’s tenure of the chapel, so I’ve been able to hold the bones of some of the men whose biographies I’m writing in all likelihood. There’s also the exciting possibility that there might be the chance to have more testing done, to learn more about the individuals who thought they would be safe underneath the chapel for eternity, only to be disturbed more than once and finally end up mixed up together underneath the Museum of London.