Archaeologists undertaking excavations at the University of Cambridge in England say they’ve discovered one of the largest medieval hospital cemeteries in the U.K., containing the remains of around 1,300 people, including approximately 400 complete skeletons.
The Press Association reported that the existence and location of the cemetery have been known to scientists since at least the mid-20th century. However, the size of the burial ground and number of remains there was not clear.
The cemetery was unearthed in 2012 during the refurbishment of the Old Divinity School at the university’s St. John’s College, but its contents are only just being made public.
Scientists say the bodies mostly date from between the 13th and 15th centuries. They would have been taken from the Hospital of St. John the Evangelist, which stood across from the graveyard until 1511. The college, which takes its name from the hospital, was founded that same year by Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of King Henry VII.
The bodies were buried without coffins or even burial shrouds, suggesting that most of the dead were poor. Most of the bodies were male, hinting at the hospital and cemetery’s stated purpose, which was to treat “poor scholars and other wretched persons.”
The Press Association reported that the bodies did not exhibit many serious illnesses and conditions that would have required medical attention. A report by The Archaeological Journal on the find said “this could reflect that the main role of the hospital was spiritual and physical care of the poor and infirm rather than medical treatment of the sick and injured”.
The University of Cambridge was founded in 1209, making it the second-oldest university in the English-speaking world, after the University of Oxford.