The chance find of a mass burial near Stornoway,
Lewis in 1989 provided Daphne with a considerable anatomical challenge.
Her analysis of eleven remarkably well-preserved skeletons from
two grave trenches literally brought us face to face with the harsh
lives and tragic deaths of what was probably a family engaged in
the Western Isles salt fish trade in the early years of the 18th
death, the group ranged in age from a juvenile to someone quite
elderly, certainly in excess of 45 years old. Nine were in their
late 'teens' or early twenties, robust young men but already displaying
the knitted broken bones amd abraded joints of harsh, probably sea-born,
Daphne's report states that '.. the determination of sex in some
individuals was problematical' and she later refers to 'ambiguous
sexual dimorphism' especially in the eldest skeleton. In the course
of her analysis this individual changed sex several times as Daphne
tried to explain to us, the excavators, how ambiguous were the bones
of this skeleton.
Despite her advice not to attribute sex, we preferred to think
that the body was that of an elderly female (few crews would have
had women on board at this time though this did happen amongst Dutch
traders). Several individuals shared genetic traits that suggested
some close familial relationship.
Daphne's report concludes that 'oral hygiene seems to have been
poor.. exacerbated by a diet deficient in fresh vegetables. Back
and knee injuries were common
and there was evidence of a
poor standard of living during infancy
manifested by rickets
and episodic malnutrition'.
distorted and abscessed femur of one young man (see photograph left)
brought home just how awful life could be for the unfortunate. He
had suffered from a chronic osteomyelitis infection of his left
Possibly in reaction to his diseased leg, his spine had become
twisted and deformed, thus for this one young man life would have
been often painful and disfiguring; from which his death at sea
may have been his only respite.
The second photograph here shows one of the grave pits, dug in
soft sand, in the course of excavation. One young man was buried
still with a bunch of coins in a cloth purse. The coins included
fourteen worn British copper coins dating to 1670-80 and similarly
dated two Dutch silver 'stuivers.
Sown into the hem of his woollen clothes was a mint condition silver
Austrian coin of 1607. Its condition suggests that it had not been
in circulation so it may have been for the young man's a highly
prized heirloom, perhaps his only tangible reminder a distant predeceased
relative who had been in eastern Europe.
Disaster struck for this group, probably in the early 1700s, when
their boat or boats foundered, possibly not far from shore. The
corpses were washed, possibly over at least two separate tides,
back to the shore where at least some of the corpses were probably
recovered in too noisome a condition to have been stripped of their
belongings. They were buried close to the shore - the usual treatment
for those who perish at sea - still clothed, thrown together in
two unmarked pits.
Daphne's very detailed anatomical and pathological analysis of
the group has allowed us a rare and intimate connection with the
lives of a small group of individuals at a fairly precise point
in the past.
Beyond this hard evidence we speculated that these people had lived
lives largely at sea, and possibly trading in salted herring out
of the Western Isles. Although probably based in these western seas,
they may have been of Dutch origin and would have been familiar
with and traded into the wider European world.
These individuals may still have further secrets to reveal as Daphne's
work pre-dated the advances in DNA studies and it is hoped that
one day with better connections between medical and archaeological
research further chapters can be added to the lost histories of
these folk who lived in peril and died at sea three hundred year
- McCullagh, R & McCormick F 1991 'The excavation of post-medieval
burials at Braigh, Aignish, Lewis 1989', Post-Medieval Archaeology
25 (1991), 73-88.