1,200 year old skeletons found at St Piran’s Oratory, Cornwall

Skeletons uncovered during last year’s excavation of St Piran’s Oratory, Perranporth have been dated to around 800 AD.  This nationally significant discovery confirms an early Christian presence at the site of the Oratory.

The amazing news was revealed by James Gossip of the Cornwall Archaeology Unit, who led the excavations. “The clearance of sand during the recent re-excavation of St Piran’s Oratory uncovered the remains of several skeletons to the north-west of the Oratory, buried approximately 24 inches below ground surface. It was necessary to record and excavate these skeletons which were later transferred to the lab, where they were cleaned and analysed by osteo-archaeologist Richard Mikulski”.

“Samples from two burials were then selected for radiocarbon dating, and sent to the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre. The first sample, taken from the skeleton of a child buried on its side in a flexed position, produced a date suggesting burial in the 8th or 9th centuries AD. The second, also a child, appears to have been buried around the same time, but more probably in the 9th century AD.

Elieen Carter, founder member of the St Piran Trust said “We are thrilled.  These results are very important as they point to the existence of a place of Christian worship at this time”.


The Oratory mound, at the start of the excavation

It is thought likely that the surviving Oratory building, owned by Perranzabuloe Parish Council, is of Norman date (11th or 12th century AD).  If this is the case then these burials relate to an earlier structure, the presence of which has long been suspected.  

The dates also suggest the development of the dune system earlier than previously thought, and it is likely that the building was constructed within a terrace in an already existing dune. It is possible that these burials form part of a sequence and that earlier burials are present cut into the sands beneath.

James Gossip added “Due to the scarcity of religious structures scientifically dated to the early medieval period these findings are of national significance and help to confirm the early medieval origins of a religious centre at the Oratory site”.
St Piran Trust Company Secretary Ian Saltern said “We are very grateful to the Heritage Lottery Fund which part-funded the excavations.  It is hoped that further archaeological work may reveal additional, perhaps earlier, burials.  

More detailed analysis of skeletal material could provide information on origins, migration and diet.  This will add significantly to our knowledge of the early origins of this iconic site and the development of the early Church in Cornwall”.

On completion of analysis the bones will be re-interred at the site with due care and respect.

For further information, please contact James Gossip in Cornwall on 01872 324303

Background Notes

·    The St Piran Trust is a non-profit-making charitable trust which is committed to the conservation and interpretation of the historic sites associated with Saint Piran – Cornwall’s national saint.  Established in 2000, the Trust has raised funds to excavate and interpret the twelfth century St Piran’s Church and the earlier Oratory of St Piran. The Trust also cares for Perran Round – a medieval ‘plen an gwary’ or playing place, once home to the performance of medieval dramas.
The Trust continues to raise funds to ensure the long-term conservation of these nationally important sites.

·    In order to create a safe working environment for the team excavating the Oratory in November 2014, it was necessary to record and excavate twelve skeletons.  Bones were carefully recorded in situ in accordance with guidelines set out by the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists and under licence from the Ministry of Justice.

·    With one exception the burials were all aligned east-west in the Christian tradition, with their limbs extended and their heads at the western end of the grave. Unusually, one had been buried in a flexed position on an almost north-south alignment, the reasons for which are uncertain. Some of the graves had been marked with upright stones at the head and feet and the bodies are likely to have been wrapped in shrouds before being placed in grave pits dug into the sand.

·    Of the twelve individuals only two were adults, both female, one aged at least 45 and the other probably aged 20-25. The children were aged 1-5 years, with one early post neonatal aged between 1 and 6 months. The bones of two skeletons exhibited familial traits and appeared to have been buried together, suggesting a close relationship.

Monday 17 August, 2015

St Piran Trust – Trest Sen Peran

Protecting, promoting and explaining the historic sites associated with st piran

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