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Logo: Tom Bates, Derbyshire Local Histrory writer  
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The Mystery Remains

Posted Wednesday, August 22, 2012

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The Mystery Remains

As a Derbyshire man with family roots in Lincolnshire, and with an avid interest in local history and archaeology, the opportunity of retiring to a smallholding between Lincoln and Wragby seemed an inviting prospect – especially when I discovered that the property had a scheduled ancient monument in the front garden!

Having spent the previous forty years studying and writing about Derbyshire history and having a particular fascination with ancient objects like guide-stoops, wayside, village and market crosses, the possibility of becoming the official guardian of one filled me with excited anticipation.

There was no mention of it in the estate agent’s brochure, so I was totally unprepared for the sight which met my gaze when looking into the front garden from an upstairs window whilst viewing the house two weeks later.

I could hardly believe my eyes!

A weather-worn ancient stone pillar rising to a height of around six or seven feet stood on a square stone base, partially hidden from view behind a tangle of overgrown shrubbery in the corner of the garden! It certainly looked old - but what was it, and what was it doing there? If it was as old as I thought, why was it standing in the front garden of the house?

I concluded that it must be some kind of garden ornament, continued viewing the rest of the property and forgot about it – until we moved into `The Green’ the following week.

I wasted no time asking the neighbours and local wisdom had it that the `village cross’ had once stood in the centre of the tiny village green opposite the property, and had been moved into the garden for safekeeping during road widening some years earlier. This seemed a doubtful tale, and subsequent enquiries at the County archives proved it to be false. The solution to the mystery of the strange garden location was quite simple: the `Scheduled Ancient Monument’ was officially described as `Village Cross & Base, possibly 17th century’ – and stood in its original position, the house having been built on part of the village green in 1799.

Intrigued, and believing the cross shaft and base to be of possible medieval origin, I delved further into the County archives and came across a reference to it in a `letter to the Editor’ in an old 1930’s copy of The Lincolnshire Magazine:

“During 1936 while trenches were being cut for water mains at Stainton by Langworth, the Engineer, Mr H Oakden states that half a dozen or more human skeleton remains were met with. These remains, roughly grouped together, lay about eighteen inches below the road surface in the middle of the village. Formerly, not far from this same place there was an ancient village stone cross, standing centrally on the village green or triangular open space where three roadways meet. Part of the stone shaft, or pillar is still to be seen placed in a garden nearby. This strange burial in the centre of the village hard by its symbolic village cross indicates something of earlier history, of times and conditions of which records, if available, would be of interest. W M Pool (Scothern)

This certainly whetted my appetite and I immediately contacted Records Officer Mark Bennett at the Lincolnshire County Archaeology Department, and discovered that historical records for the village were very scant with only two mentions documented since Stainton by Langworth was recorded in the Domesday Book almost a thousand years earlier.

I also learned that there were no `official’ records of human remains being found here; the department were aware of the 1936 discovery, but because the workmen had simply covered over the skeletons and they had not been officially identified by an archaeologist, then they were simply recorded as `possible human remains’.

The earliest records were from the late 12th century when a `bridge-keeper and miller’ were recorded, and almost a hundred years later the Barlings Abbey records claim a landholding at Stainton by Langworth when the church was administered by the Premonstratention Monks and the land was used mainly for grazing sheep, with a nearby Grange along the road to Scothern. The Barlings Abbey records also mention a dispute between the Abbot and his superiors during the religious turmoil immediately preceding the Dissolution of the Monasteries around 1538, and a skirmish which resulted in the subsequent disappearance and possible murder of several brethren! Further, I discovered that Langworth once had a Leper Hospital which was in existence for about two hundred years from the 12th century onwards and was located less than a mile away. Could these bones be the remains of lepers – or monks?

There is mention of a church at Domesday, but the parish then included Newball, Langworth and Reasby, and it is reasonable to suppose that the church built around 1370 to cater for the larger parish, was built on the site of a former, possibly Saxon church. The current church was rebuilt in the late 18th century on the site of the much larger 13th century structure, but could the original church be contemporary with the village cross shaft and base in the front garden?

Records suggest that the Plague or Black Death of 1349 took a heavy toll of the local population – and yet barely twenty years later the village was prosperous enough to build a new church - and perhaps populous enough to erect a stone cross on the village green? Could the stone cross have been erected to mark the spot where the village elders were laid to rest in a shallow grave by the survivors of the 1349-51 Plague which killed over half the population of England?

With my interest quickened by this apparent mystery I made further enquiries around the village and learned that in 2004, when council workmen were laying a new kerb by the roadside adjacent to the property, they unearthed two more human skeletons. Again, the remains were covered over and went unreported.

Next, in an attempt to locate the original remains found in 1936, I contacted the previous owner of the property whose family had been in occupation for over eighty years, and learned that whilst gardening he and his father had found human remains `all over the garden’ at the shallow depth of about a foot to eighteen inches. None of this activity was reported or investigated and as far as the official records were concerned nothing could be substantiated until an archaeologist had seen and verified any human remains.

Thus, in July 2010 I consulted County Archaeologist Karen Waite about the possibility of putting in a couple of test pits in an attempt to have the site verified as a burial ground, and to find the extent of the inhumations. We also needed some kind of dating evidence.

I ascertained that the original skeletons found by the workmen in 1936 were located approximately four metres north of the village cross, whilst the two skeletons unearthed by the kerb layers were eight metres to the east, so I sank my first test pit five metres to the south of the scheduled ancient monument. It was hard going and quite gloomy in amongst the trees; the ground was covered in creeping Ivy and the overhanging branches hampered my digging and blocked out most of the daylight. The soil was heavily compacted and gravelly, full of tree roots and difficult to dig without a small pick or mattock and my spade was fairly useless, so I used a First World War trenching tool and scraped and hacked my way slowly downward in a one metre square hole.

At a depth of about twelve inches I found a small piece of bone and a layer of greyish white mould which at first I took to be ash, but on closer inspection seemed to be some kind of decayed organic material. Could it be decomposed wool, or perhaps the use of quick-lime at some time in the distant past? At a depth of fourteen inches I struck bone, and using my trowel carefully scraped around it until the object could clearly be defined, it was a human skull!

I was able to determine that the skeleton was lying face up and was aligned east to west, and the bone and cartilage of the trachaea and beginning of the spinal column could be seen protruding from the earth beneath the base of the lower jaw, which had two lower but badly decayed molars still intact. I excavated the remainder of the test pit to the same depth, and in the south-west corner of the floor of the pit about twelve inches to the right of the skull and on a different alignment, a large bone was visible, possibly a fibula belonging to a different skeleton. Unfortunately there was no dating evidence.

I photographed the remains and immediately contacted Karen Waite with news of the discovery and she arrived within the hour, took photographs herself and examined the visible contents of the excavation, confirming that they were indeed human remains. At last, seventy four years after the discovery of skeletons in the garden, human remains had been officially verified by an archaeologist!

The idea had already formed in my mind that the old village cross marked the centre of an ancient burial ground, and that it had possibly been erected by the 13th/14th century village community as a single large grave marker or memorial to their ancestors, whether Plague victims, lepers, or murdered monks!

The following day, excited and flushed with the success of my venture, I decided to dig another larger pit away from the trees, about four metres due south of the first pit. It took all day to get down to the same depth as the previous day’s dig, but all I unearthed was two or three fragments of animal bone and a cow’s tooth, no sign of any decayed organic material or human remains. Undaunted I carried on scraping and brushing to a depth of about three feet, but found nothing further, and closed the trench.

Then, as I was re-filling the hole in the front lawn a neighbour came over to see what I was doing, and after I’d explained about the skeletons and my search for dating evidence, he showed me a beautifully carved bone needle which he’d turned over in the topsoil whilst planting vegetables in his garden a few years earlier. I identified the bone needle as of possible Saxon origin, although such needles date originally from Neolithic times and have been manufactured down the centuries even to modern times, but many have been found in Saxon burials!

Archaeologist Karen Waite pointed out however, that the exquisite bone needle could not be used as dating evidence because there was nothing to tie it in with the human remains found in the garden; had it been found in-situ alongside human remains then it would be a completely different story.

A couple of months later and without further opportunity to explore more of the site, my temporary guardianship of the Grade Two Listed Scheduled Ancient Monument came to an end along with the tenancy, and I moved to another property near Market Rasen, leaving behind an ancient mystery for the professionals to solve, and a garden full of skeletons with the ever present mute stone sentinel casting a cloak of silence over its secrets – and the mystery remains!

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