For one medieval couple, “till death do us part” wasn’t nearly long enough. A team of archeologists excavating the Chapel of St. Morrell in England’s Leicestershire County recently discovered two skeletons buried with their arms entwined. Believed to be a destination for pilgrims in the 14th century, the chapel was “lost” for centuries before being rediscovered by a local historian.
Archeologists believe the Chapel of St. Morrell, which overlooks the small village of Hallaton in east Leicestershire, was used from the 12th to the 16th centuries. Though historical accounts in the intervening centuries had long referred to a chapel in Hallaton (the earliest mention dates to 1532), it was only recently that local historian John Morrison did research into its location and suggested Hare Pike Bank, the site of Hallaton’s Easter festivities. Researchers from the Hallaton Fieldwork Group conducted a geophysical survey of the area and discovered a 36-meter-square boundary with features inside it, spurring a four-year excavation project by that group, along with the University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS).
The team of researchers uncovered the walls and tiled floors of the chapel, as well as fragments of stone masonry, plaster and lead from the windows. They also found numerous silver pennies, dating to between the 12th and 16th centuries, which allowed them to estimate when the chapel was in use. Additionally, a pilgrim badge inscribed with “Morrell” found within the chapel walls supported the theory that the chapel was a site of pilgrimage during the medieval period.
On the north side of the site, the archeologists found a cemetery, from which they have excavated a total of 11 skeletons so far; they expect they will find more. Using radiocarbon dating, all have been dated to the 14th century, and all were oriented east-west, according to Christian tradition at the time. Two of the skeletons, belonging to a man and a woman, had been placed side by side in the same grave with their arms crossed together.
While double graves in themselves aren’t too unusual (as Vicki Score, ULAS project manager, said in a statement: “We have seen similar skeletons before from Leicester where a couple has been buried together in a single grave”), the archeologists are puzzled as to why the skeletons were buried at the chapel, instead of in the cemetery at the church in Hallaton. The researchers speculate that the chapel could have served as a special burial place at the time, or that the couple (and the other individuals buried at the chapel) could have been refused burial at the church for some reason. They could have been foreigners or criminals, for example, or they could have suffered from some illness or disease.
Though its most active years may have been during the Middle Ages, evidence found near the “lost” chapel suggests that use of the hillside site extends all the way back to Roman times, more than 2,000 years ago. In particular, archeologists found a square ditch around the site, indicating that it might have originally been the site of a Roman temple. In addition, the chapel site is located only a few hundred meters from an Iron Age shrine where thousands of coins and silver objects, including a Roman cavalry helmet, were ritually buried.