The Cemetery of St Helen-on-the-Walls, Aldwark


list of authors
J. D. Dawes
J. R. Magilton
list of contributors
D. M. Palliser
Is Part Of
The Archaeology of York [Series]
The Medieval Cemeteries [Volume]
Council for British Archaeology for York Archaeological Trust
Date Copyrighted
Date Available
Digitally available on 20 October 2023
Excavations by York Archaeological Trust on the north-east side of Aldwark, York, in 1973- 74, uncovered the remains of the church and cemetery of St Helen-on-the-Walls, formerly located by York topographical writers further north-west within the Roman fortress. A report on the church is published in A Y 10/1. The work revealed five phases of church development dating from about the 10th to the mid 16th century, with associated burials both inside the church and in the surrounding graveyard. Further excavations were undertaken in 1976 to recover more skeletons for analysis. In all about two-thirds of the original area of the cemetery was examined, and the remains of over a thousand individuals were recovered. The large-scale excavation and the detailed anthropological study of the skeletons are the first of their size and scope to be published in Britain. In addition to giving evidence of life in medieval York, the results are of importance for the wider study of demographic changes and conditions of life of medieval populations in general.

Stratification in the graveyard was insufficient to provide dating evidence although some of the burials in the area of the church could be grouped chronologically in relation to church walls and floors. Nevertheless the size of the excavation enabled useful studies to be made of the density of burials in different parts of the cemetery, their distribution according to age and sex, and the differences in their alignment. Evidence was found of a variety of burial practices, including methods of laying out, the use of coffins or shrouds, and different types of graves. Complementary evidence from wills dating from 1389-1549 is also considered in the report.

All the articulated skeletons and skulls were fully examined and their metrical and nonmetrical characteristics recorded. Scattered bones were examined only for pathological changes and for the count on which the number of individuals represented was based. In the report the remains are considered first as a single population; then burials from different areas of the cemetery, and from such chronological groups as could be distinguished, are compared. Much of this work is based on computer analyses. An indication is given of the dental health of the population and of pathological changes in the bones caused by wounds and fractures, occupational activity, or disease. Age, mortality and cause of death are discussed and comparisons made with evidence from burial registers of other parishes. The St Helen’s sample was compared, by cluster analysis, with seven other British medieval population samples, three from York, three from other sites in the area and one from southern England, and with samples from earlier times and further afield. The affinities between the groups imply a change in average physical type about the time of the Norman conquest, but further work on the variability of the samples is required before the historical significance of this development may be assessed with any confidence.
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York Archaeological Trust
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