While excavating the burial ground, archaeologists uncovered a sand-filled coffin topped with heavy stones. This discovery is rare archaeological evidence of the preventative measures taken to thwart bodysnatchers.
Robert Hartle, MOLA Archaeologist, said:
“We realised immediately this burial was something highly unusual. Archaeological evidence associated with bodysnatching is extremely rare. Our subsequent historical research has exposed a truly fascinating and illicit side to this burial ground.”
Dating evidence suggests that this burial probably occurred during 1720–1739 and indicates that the citizens of London were deeply fearful of the bodysnatching by this time and the discovery adds to our understanding of how this fear was managed.
The Clitherow family were keepers of the burial ground from 1636–1740. Although there is no evidence that they were complicit in bodysnatching, it is clear they operated various moneymaking schemes and ‘irregular practices’ throughout their tenure: they overcharged for burial, allowed locals to dry cloth in the burial ground, and disturbed burials to build themselves a house and outbuildings. The family were also shopkeepers and turners by trade and worked bone and ivory to create various small household items like needle cases, parts for small novelty telescopes and fittings for furniture.
Archaeologists discovered over 4,000 pieces of bone turning waste in with burials that suggest that Clitherows were fly-tipping in the burial ground and perhaps even providing a waste disposal service for the neighbourhood. Today these discarded items offer unique insight into the local industries, market, fashions, tastes and trends of the time.
Edward G. Clitherow – descendant of the Clitherow family mentioned in the book, said:
"After many years studying my London Clitherow ancestors I feel incredibly lucky that MOLA's research has now shed new light on our intriguing and exciting family history, and gives a fascinating insight into the daily lives of our ancestors"
MOLA’s research also explores the histories of some of those buried at the New Churchyard which was especially popular with religious dissenters. One of the more eccentric people interred at the burial ground was Lodowicke Muggleton, self-proclaimed prophet and founder of ‘Muggletonianism’. His funeral was witnessed by thousands of spectators in 1698. The New Churchyard was also strongly associated with the Leveller movement.
William Walwyn and John Lilburne, two prominent and oft-imprisoned Leveller leaders, were both buried at the New Churchyard. Lilburne was a Quaker and his corpse was placed in a plain wooden coffin which was carried head-first to the New Churchyard to be interred ‘without Christian burial, or any ceremony’.
Construction of London’s newest railway, the Elizabeth line, has given archaeologists a unique chance to excavate some of the capital’s most historically significant sites. Since work began in 2009, the Crossrail project has undertaken one of the most extensive archaeological programmes ever undertaken in the UK, with tens of thousands artefacts shining a light on almost every important period of history.
The book will be available to buy from www.mola.org.uk/publications later this year.