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Baby skeleton discovered in Alderney battlements

Baby skeleton discovered in Alderney battlements

Tuesday 07 May 2019

Baby skeleton discovered in Alderney battlements


A team of archaeologists have unearthed the bones of a baby in Alderney, dating back to the 19th century.

Led by Guernsey's Director of Heritage Services Dr Jason Monaghan, the archaeologists were investigating the gatehouse of the island's nunnery last summer when they came across the grave.

They cut a small trench into the top of the gatehouse, proving most of the Roman floor had been cut away when the passage was widened in around 1793. It was this that led them to the discovery.

"In the side of this trench we could see what looked like a crab shell," said Dr Monaghan. "Expanding the trench slightly, it became clear it was the skull of a child in a shallow grave. The top of a gate tower is the last place I'd expect to find a burial, so I called the police in case this was a crime scene."

Once the police had visited the site and given permission, the grave was carefully excavated by archaeologist Jenny Cataroche (pictured above), who specialises in the study of human bones.

While it was not possible to determine the sex of the child, Ms Cataroche found the bones were consistent with a gestational age of 38-40 weeks, meaning the baby was carried to full term.

Alderney_dig.jpg

Pictured: During last year's dig the team also found a significant settlement.

"There were no grave goods or clothing remnants found with the skeleton so it is most likely the baby was wrapped in a blanket or shawl, of which nothing remains," she said. "It was placed on its right side with knees drawn up to the chest and hands near the face.

"The unusual location of the burial - not in a churchyard - suggests the baby was unbaptised, perhaps stillborn. We are probably looking at death linked to complications of pregnancy or birth which, sadly, would have been much more common in the past."

The team established it could not have been a Roman burial as the grave was cut into the rebuilt section of the gatehouse, although the skeleton indicated it was not recent.

Samples were sent to a laboratory in Florida for Carbon-14 dating. The results found the burial was likely to have taken place in approximately 1820. Once it was clear the burial was not recent, the police allowed the archaeologists to take back control of the case.

The nunnery was used as a barracks for British soldiers in the early part of the 19th century and was a military hospital by the middle of the century.

"Our best guess is that the baby was born to the wife or girlfriend of one of the garrison," continued Ms Cataroche. "Whether the child was stillborn or died soon after birth we can't tell. At that time, unbaptised or illegitimate babies might be hurriedly disposed of but this baby was clearly cared about as its parents chose to bury it in a prominent place in the fort."

The nunnery is located on Longis Bay in Alderney. At times in its history the first has been home to the island's Governors, a gun battery, barracks for the British Army, a military hospital, married quarters, a farm and a German resistance point.

Excavations have taken place over the last decade, supported by Guernsey Museums and the Alderney Society.

Pictured top: Jenny Cataroche inspecting the skeleton.

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