Bones of the Dead

Cambridge, like all cities, is built on the bones of the poor. The Austrian town of Tulln, meanwhile, is also built on the bones of an Ottoman camel.


St. John’s College has just announced that excavations carried out three years ago under the Old Divinity School revealed one of the largest medieval cemeteries (or in the words of the head of the dig ‘one of the largest medieval hospital osteoarchaeological assemblages’) ever discovered – over 1,000 bodies, nearly 400 of them complete skeletons.

The site was formally the Hospital of St. John the Evangelist – St. John’s adopted the name upon the foundation of the college in 1511. The bodies would have been buried in the two centuries prior to that, and were mostly young men, probably indigent scholars since the bodies were buried without grave goods or coffins or shrouds. It was not, however, a mass grave site, the dead being laid out neatly either side of gravel paths under seeded ground (read about the cemetery here).

On the subject of ancient bones (not an inappropriate one, I think, for Good Friday), the skeleton of a camel has been found buried beneath the town of Tulln in Austria, almost certainly a legacy of the invading Ottoman army of 1683 which besieged Vienna for two months before being defeated by an alliance of Holy Roman Empire and Poland-Lithuania.

The camel is decended from a male Bactrian double-hump and a female single-humped dromedary, a not uncommon cross it seems in the seventeenth century, creating particularly hardy hybrids much favoured by the Ottomans for war. The camel was most likely traded or abandoned after the Ottoman retreat, and lived out its life in Tulln, where I suppose it made a strange impression on the locals, not unlike that made by the bones of a fossil whale on some ‘credulous slaves’ in Alabama, according to Herman Melville in Moby Dick, which they took to be the bones of one of the fallen angels.


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