Hospital Fever: Excavation of the medieval hospital of St John the Baptist in advance of new housing in Dublin
by James Hession
Rubicon regularly assists developers with accessing land for housing. This includes both pre-planning advice which establishes whether there is likely to be archaeology on site and mitigation services eg archaeological survey or excavation, which records known archaeology ahead of development. In 2017 we were involved in such a project at a medieval cemetery associated with the priory and hospital of St John the Baptist, located at Johns’ Lane West, Dublin 8.
The work was carried out on behalf of Focus Housing, who were re-developing the site from an emergency hostel into a series of apartments for 70 homeless individuals and families.
The priory and hospital of St John the Baptist
In the medieval period the priory and hospital of St John the Baptist lay at the eastern end of Thomas Street, on the site of the present-day church of St Augustine and St John, just outside the Newgate —the fortified gate which commanded the western entrance into the town.
The priory and hospital were founded by Ailred the Palmer and his wife between 1185 and 1188 and was run by the Fratres Cruciferi (friars of the cross or crutched friars), an order of St Augustine canons who operated exclusively as hospitallers in Ireland. The Fratres Cruciferi provided care to both men and women from all religions and not only took care of the sick but administered alms and food directly to the poor of Dublin.
The results of the excavation revealed 29 inhumation burials (24 adults, one adolescent and four children), two medieval ditches, and the remnants of a 19th century building.
Demography and Pathology
Although the skeletal assemblage from this excavation only represents part of the greater cemetery population of the medieval hospital of St John the Baptist, some general interpretations can be made. The age and sex profile of the human remains assemblage suggests that female mortality was highest in young adults, as would be common given the dangers of pregnancy and childbirth in antiquity, while males at John’s Lane West lived into older age. The numbers of children appear low, and the absence of infants would suggest a degree of segregation in burial practices according to age.
Pathologies identified included dental pathologies, degenerative joint disease and trauma as well as metabolic and congenital conditions.
Isotopic analysis was carried out on teeth from five of the individuals buried at John’s Lane West. This scientific technique analyses the precise volumes of specific naturally occurring chemicals (eg Strontium isotopes - 87Sr and 86Sr) that are absorbed by bones and teeth during an individual's life. The place where an individual grows up and where they live affects the relative proportion of the different isotopes in their skeleton, based on the food they eat and water they drink. Measuring and comparing these isotopes from different individuals within an assemblage of human remains can shed fascinating insights on ancient population movement, among other things.
The analysis identified a number of individuals as possible incomers to the city, in addition to indicating variances in marine resource exploitation and signs of stress or illness during childhood. The findings from the excavation suggested that two adult females buried in the same grave may have had a familial relationship, with the older female thought to be the mother of the younger. However, the isotope data indicated this was unlikely and suggested the possibility that they came from the same location originally, but moved to the city at different times.
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