Just across the road from our cottage in Tréguennec is the shell of a chapel. It has been deconsecrated for several years and now stands empty in the middle of a grassy lawn. Although not old itself – the panel over the door reads 1878 – it was built on the site of a church and cemetery that served the village between the fourteenth and early sixteenth centuries. With this history, anything dug up in or around the chapel could be old and, over the summer, a lot of digging went on.
The chapel will soon have a new role; it is being converted into a hall for public meetings, poetry readings or even concerts. As part of the renovation a new floor is being laid and running water installed. Work on the old floor has brought some surprises. Denis, who is making the changes, is continuously unearthing human remains! Most of the bones he finds are unrecognisable fragments, some, however are large and easily identified.
One morning, a loud whirring noise came from inside the chapel and dust puffed out through a window. I went over to investigate. Denis was using a mechanical drill to dig deeper than usual; the pipes to take the water in and out of the building had to pass under the foundations. As I approached the chapel I had already noticed a pile of rubble next to a hole outside which he had dug earlier. This was not any old rubble – peeping out from the earth was a section of a human skull and parts of two human long bones.
I picked up the skull, brushed off the earth and examined it closely. From the layout of its wiggly sutures (see illustration), I realised that the section, which was the size of a hand, was from the crown – the flattish bit at the back of the head. Inspection over, I gently replaced it on the pile, confirmed with Denis that he had found it that day, and went home to tell my wife, Rohan, of the morning’s events.
I had just held part of a skull that could well be over five hundred years old – the ground around the chapel had not been used as the parish cemetery since the 1550s! Moreover, based on my rather rusty knowledge of anatomy, I decided that it had once belonged to a woman since the bone itself was relatively thin and its contours smooth. And there was more – she was unlikely to have been well-to-do as her skull was found in ground outside the chapel walls. Had she been wealthy and influential she would have been buried within the building and close to the altar. From such an exalted position, ascent to heaven was believed to be assured!
I showed Rohan my photograph and said that, if permission were granted, I would love to own the skull section and perhaps display it in our garden as an historical treasure. We already have a few local artefacts which include parts of centuries-old gravestones and window surrounds and an old water pump. This skull would be a wonderful addition.
The discussion that followed was helped by advice, albeit conflicting, from friends. “Keep it if you can, it’s fun”. “Keep it; like all bones it is an object of beauty”. “Keep it, but if you do you must show respect”. “Keeping it would be disrespectful of villagers whose ancestor this could be – it should be ceremoniously re-buried in an official site”. Our decision took time.
We both thought it was an extraordinary discovery and that, whatever else happened, the skull should be treated with respect. Moreover, neither of us would feel squeamish about being its guardian. There was, however, an overriding consideration. Several of our neighbours have parents, grandparents, even great- grandparents living nearby and in a village with such a stable population, it seemed possible that, whatever its age, the skull could belong to an ancestor of someone still living nearby. Any descendants might well see that keeping the skull in our garden was disrespectful, possibly even akin to theft. By rights it should be returned to them for burial, although the church or the state might themselves make a claim.
The skull was still on the pile when I returned to the chapel next day. I told Denis of our discussion and he nodded, picked up the segment, took it into the chapel and placed it, along with the two long bones, on a second heap, presumably for some official burial at a later date. As Denis put the fragments on the pile he said with solemnity “Amen”. I, a devout atheist but one remembering that “amen” actually means “so be it’, followed suit.
I hope that the villagers will get to know of her presence and have the opportunity to show their respects. Being around for 500 years is worthy of recognition!
The illustration shows my photo of the section of the unearthed skull with its wiggly sutures – the joints between the bones – typical of those found at the crown (occiput) of the human head. The fragments of long bones seen on either side are the ends of two femurs; each would once have articulated with a tibia to form the knee joint.
For help with writing this blog, I would like to thank Denis, Annie P, Martine, Rohan and Vivien.
4 thoughts on “An Encounter with an Old Neighbour”
Ooo, the picture made me think this would be a Halloween story!
Amen… I think any remains should stay ‘rooted’ within the new community hall and should any ‘posher’ bones be found, they be placed beneath those found outside.
I look forward to seeing the new Community Centre when it’s finished.
Dear Carolyn, Many thanks for your comment. I love your idea of giving a new hierarchy to the remains. The problem is, as Kipling so cleverly argued when he was involved in the War Graves Commission, after death we are all equal. Love, Joe
An extraordinary story, Joe. I love the sense of continuity through the centuries & how people’s pasts touch our present in often unexpected ways. It will probably never be possible to put a name to her, but I find it rather moving to think that, hopefully, that woman’s mortal remains will stay connected to her community.
Dear JJ Fruitbat, Many thanks for your comment. Your comment reflects exactly how I felt. Mysteriously, by picking up the skull, I was in touch with our community those hundreds of years ago. What odd animals we humans are. Joe