2007 Archaeological Dig

Burials of eighteenth-century Naval personnel: preliminary results from excavations at the Royal Hospital Haslar, Gosport (Hants)
Andrew J. Shortland, Peter Masters, Karl Harrison, Anna Williams & Ceridwen Boston


The Centre for Archaeological and Forensic Analysis (CAFA) has started historical background research supported by a series of excavations on the site of the burial grounds of the Royal Hospital Haslar in Gosport, on the Hampshire coast of southern England. The work is part of a wider Land Quality Assessment in partnership with Defence Estates, an arm of the Ministry of Defence, who are forming plans for the future of the Hospital site when it ceases to be operational in 2009 or 2010. The nature and extent of the Haslar burial grounds is significant as they will fundamentally affect any future plans for the property.

History of the burial ground

Between the opening of the Royal Hospital Haslar in 1753 and 1826 (when a major review of burial practice took place), the whole of the area to the south-west of the hospital building, including "the Paddock" and areas now covered by buildings and gardens (see Figure 1) was utilised indiscriminately as an unconsecrated burial ground for those who died in the hospital (Tait 1906). Reports dating to the early nineteenth century record that the Paddock was "thick with buried bodies and scattered tombstones" (Lloyd & Coultner 1963), and that it was common to unearth skeletons a few feet beneath the ground surface. Almost all of the burial markers were removed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, leaving the extent of the burials a matter of folk history.

The burials are mostly thought to be of seamen and marines from the Royal Navy, although it is known from written records that other military and civilian personnel were occasionally buried there. Haslar also received many dead from the sinking of HMS Royal George off Spithead in 1782, wounded from the Battles of Trafalgar (1805) and Corunna (1809) and sick from several typhus epidemics. Previous excavations of the Paddock (Oxford Archaeology 2005) estimated that the number of burials was likely to be between 30 000 and 60 000, which would make it the largest burial ground of British service personnel in the UK and possibly the World.

The 2007 season of excavation

In the first season of CAFA excavation at Haslar, a 6 x 7m trench in the Paddock was opened, exposing 15 grave cuts (Figure 2). In this area, the burials appeared to lie closely together and in parallel rows, unlike more random patterns of burial elsewhere in the Paddock (Oxford Archaeology 2005). They were so close together that it was possible to say that they must have been buried sequentially; in other words, one grave was dug and the individual buried before the next was dug. Indeed, the baulk between grave cuts was so narrow that it would have collapsed if the graves had all been dug first before filling. It is likely that the graves were dug within a short period of each other, when physical evidence of the previous grave still existed, since they never inter-cut and were evenly spaced. The burials were aligned northwest-southeast (Figure 3), which is unusual as east-west would be the norm (Cox 1998). Perhaps there were space constraints that are not yet obvious, or they were aligned parallel with the main hospital axis or perhaps they were positioned "looking out to sea".

Of the burials, seven were lifted; they had iron coffin nails preserved and from surviving wood evidently the bodies were buried in pine coffins (Hazell 2008). A preliminary study of the skeletons has been conducted showing that all of the individuals were likely to be male and under 35 years old at death; it is likely that two of them were under 20. Several features of the skeletons give indications as to their health in life and/or cause of death. Several lost teeth during their lives and had caries and abscesses. Most individuals were quite heavily built, and particularly strong in the upper body, which would be likely if they had spent many years hauling on ropes or undertaking other types of physical activity. One of the younger individuals has a deep cut mark on the head of the right humerus (Figure 4). The shape of the cut suggests that it was probably caused by a heavy sharp object, perhaps a sword or cutlass. It does not exhibit macroscopic evidence of healing, so may have been the cause of, or contributory factor to, this individual's death.

Some evidence of the work of medical personnel on the individuals has also been found. An example is some cloth (very rarely preserved) which was fastened by a copper pin (see Figure 5). The cloth was identified as linen, and no other clothing or buttons, etc. have yet been found. It is therefore uncertain whether the individuals were buried clothed or naked, or whether they had a shroud. The pin and the fragment of cloth may also represent the remains of a bandage. Only further work will tell.


After the completion of our first season, results are already challenging some of the received wisdom of how naval burials might have been carried out. Most significantly, all the burials were in coffins, not wrapped in hammocks as records imply (Tait 1906). The individuals also seem to have been buried in an unexpected orientation, which requires further interpretation. Preservation of some cloth and wood along with skeletal evidence of wounds and disease further suggests that this site has a lot to offer in the study of naval medicine of this period.


Figure 1. General view of the Paddock area.
Figure 2. 2007 trench in the Paddock showing 15 grave cuts.
Figure 3. Burial showing typical alignment and layout.
Figure 4. Close up of individual in Figure 3, showing deep cut mark on the head of the right humerus.
Figure 5. Rare preservation of cloth which was fastened by a copper pin, each 20mm across.
Article from http://www.antiquity.ac.uk/ with thanks


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