The most significant development in recording and studying of religious sites in North West England in the last decade has been the large-scale scientific excavation of several post-medieval and industrial period urban graveyards. This data has the potential to provide a new source of evidence relating to the impact of the industrialisation process on the people of the region by analysis of their very remains.
Many of these sites are non-conformist denominations, which have slightly different legal protocols if disused and usually have different stakeholder attitudes. Examples include chapels at Redearth (LA) and Swinton (GM). Some large urban cemeteries associated with Church of England sites have also been excavated, as at Freckleton Street, adjacent to Blackburn Cathedral (L). In Lancashire, an archaeological watching brief at the Darwen Academy (L) on the site of the Redearth Road Cemetery revealed six skeletons, probably from the 19th century Free Methodist Church that lay on the site. A large portion of the cemetery on Freckleton Street, associated with St Peters now Blackburn Cathedral, was excavated ahead of road construction. The dozens of bodies investigated from this site are mostly from the working-class population of the 18th and 19th century industrial town. Most of these cemetery excavations have yet to be published.
Development pressure in Greater Manchester has impacted on several former non-conformist burial grounds, where removal of human remains has been informed by detailed programmes of archaeological investigation and recording, including laboratory analysis to examine the skeletal remains. The Second City Crossing Metrolink scheme in Manchester led to a programme of careful excavation and recording of around 250 burials spanning the 18th and 19th centuries at Cross Street Chapel graveyard (GM) by CFA Archaeology Ltd. The remains, which date from around the 1720s to the 1850s, were found to be members of the ‘Nonconformist’’ movement, later part of the Unitarian Church. These are named and aged individuals. During the Metrolink construction work, TfGM also uncovered the vaulted crypt of St Peter’s Church, dating back to 1788, under St Peter’s Square. Archaeologists unearthed some day-to-day discarded items along with less common finds that were put on display in Manchester Central Library. At Manchester Cathedral the reduction of the floor for a new heating scheme, the excavation of a dais pit in front of the medieval rood screen, and the insertion of ground source heat pumps and cabling externally within the former graveyard all had considerable archaeological implications. In total 32 burials from within 48 graves were excavated within the nave by Wessex Archaeology under the guidance of GMAAS. The nave burials consisted of a mix of shroud burials, interments in wood and lead coffins, and two graves containing a densely-packed chalk deposit surrounding the deceased. A further 16 burials were recovered from the watching brief, 12 of which exhibited evidence for wooden coffins, and four of which had no surviving wood. The elaborate coffin furnishings manufactured from bronze and brass recovered from within the Cathedral, alongside the five lead coffins within the nave, indicated that these individuals were of a higher social standing than those encountered during similar archaeological works at the cathedrals at Wakefield and Sheffield. Furthermore, the preference for iron coffin furnishings recovered during the watching brief outside the Cathedral, indicates the extra-mural burials were of individuals of a lower socioeconomic status than those buried within the Cathedral walls. The mixed demographic of the burials both within and outside the Cathedral indicate these interments to be of the local lay population served by the Cathedral. No children aged less than a year old at the time of their death were recovered during this archaeological programme, suggesting those that were not baptised were excluded from the Cathedral cemetery or buried in specific areas, not impacted by the current works (Wessex Archaeology 2013).
At the former Welsh Baptist Chapel on Booth Street West in Manchester (GM), Phoenix Exhumations Ltd recorded, under the guidance of GMAAS, recorded 144 individuals buried between 1839 and 1882, from the wealthier elements of the Nonconformist community. Of these, 62 articulated skeletons and a proportion of the disarticulated remains (relating to 44 individuals) were studied through osteological analysis before reburial, giving details of their sex, stature, age at death, and any diseases or abnormalities. The coffin furniture and artefacts associated with them were analysed. Of the 22 fairly intact coffins excavated, 20 were found to be made of lead and two of iron covered in concrete. The remaining coffins were in various degrees of preservation and made of wood bound by iron and studded. Several coffins were also covered in leather, a few remnants of which were preserved. Coffin furniture, small finds, the botanical content of a wreath, pottery, and animal bone found within the backfill of the vaults were recorded. The skeletal remains indicated the presence of osteoarthritis, trauma in the form of fractured bones, a number of congenital conditions such as spina bifida and scoliosis, and evidence for deformation of the ribs, probably brought about from wearing tightly fastened corsets (Gregory & Keen 2018). This case study shows the potential of such material from urban industrial populations.
Proposals for a housing development at 11-16 Chapel Street, Hazel Grove (GM), included the former site of an 18th century Wesleyan Chapel (1785-6) and sunday school (built around 1823). The development area encompassed the former burial ground where, over a 73-year period, 367 individuals were recorded as having been interred. The graves of 44 individuals were investigated and a total of 38 skeletons were removed from the site, analysed by specialist osteologists (York Osteoarchaeology), and reburied along with their coffins, personal effects and other finds. All burials were in extended and supine positions, on a west-east alignment. A small number of partially legible coffin plates were recovered during the excavation that indicate these individuals are representative of the 18th and early-19th century members of the congregation of this chapel. The osteological analysis revealed evidence for childhood diseases, trauma injuries, and poor dental health (CfA, 2017).
The excavations ahead of the ASDA Store development in Swinton (GM) by OAN in 2012-13, led to archaeological recovery of a sample of the graveyard. Here 112 articulated skeletons were recovered for osteological analysis. These remains came from the former Swinton Unitarian Free Church cemetery, dating from 1863-1899, the assemblage comprising 71 adults and 41 juveniles.