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Cambridge University Unearths Medieval Hospital Cemetery


Here's a pretty extraordinary find. This week, archaeologists announced that they've uncovered one of the largest medieval hospital cemeteries in Britain.


The discovery was made a few years ago on the campus of Cambridge University. An archaeological team was digging underneath the Old Divinity School at St. John's College ahead of renovations when they started finding skeletons.

CRAIG CESSFORD: When you find the first one or two, it's slightly a shock when you see the face and the skull of someone staring back up at you.

CORNISH: That's Craig Cessford, the leader of the team. He says they kept digging and found the remains of about 1,300 people.

CESSFORD: Some of them are complete, and you can see the body laid out. Other ones were just jumbles of bones.

CORNISH: Cessford announced the discovery in The Archaeological Journal. The remains are from the 13th to 15th centuries, buried without coffins from the hospital of St. John the Evangelist.

BLOCK: That's actually how St. John's College in Cambridge got its name. Now, before you start imagining 13th-century surgeries gone wrong, Cessford says it wasn't the kind of hospital we think of today.

CESSFORD: It's sort of a combination of a nursing home, a hotel, a church and all those things wrapped into one really.

CORNISH: Cessford says it's hard to tell from just the bones how the people in the hospital cemetery died.

CESSFORD: It's quite possible that some of them died of bubonic plague. And, of course, a lot of relatively simple diseases that, today, you can get vaccinated against would potentially have been fatal at that time.

CORNISH: Now, to Americans it might be surprising that a massive medieval cemetery went so long without being discovered. But Cessford says it's just another day when you're digging in a historic place like Cambridge.

CESSFORD: Anywhere we dig, we find up to a thousand years of archaeology, lots of remains of the medieval colleges, Roman archaeology and prehistoric archaeology within the time.

BLOCK: So watch your step, people of Cambridge. You never know what ancient stories may be beneath your feet.

(MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.