Skeletons on show after 2,000 years under an unremarkable patch of land near Leeds

Leeds Museums and Galleries curator of archaeology Kat Baxter with a skull from  the Iron Age woman found at the dig near Bramham.
Leeds Museums and Galleries curator of archaeology Kat Baxter with a skull from the Iron Age woman found at the dig near Bramham.
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For 2,000 years they lay curled up together under an unremarkable patch of land near Leeds.

But now the skeletons of a man and an older woman discovered in a single grave by the A1 near Bramham, inset, are going on display in the city for the first time.

Found in a “spooning” position, the couple, who lived in the late Iron Age, will be laid out side by side as part of Skeletons: Our Buried Bones, a thought-provoking UK-wide touring exhibition, which explores our enduring fascination with our ancestors and their bones.

Leeds Museums and Galleries’ curator of archaeology Kat Baxter said they’d never know why the pair were buried together.

She said: “Perhaps they had a special relationship or they were related.

“Whatever the reason, it’s very likely that they did have some sort of a strong connection.”

The woman was over 45, and had some bad abscesses on her teeth – a potential killer in an age where there no antibiotics – as well as a benign tumour on her skull.

The man was 25 to 35 – an age we consider fairly young, but not so young in the Iron Age – and used to heavy lifting or manual labour.

Among the dozen skeletons in the exhibition at Leeds City Museum, perhaps the one with the most curious story is also the only one with a possible name.

She was a middle-aged “anchoress” – a person who for religious reasons withdrew from society to lead an intensely prayer-oriented life.

The skeleton was found in the apse of All Saints in Fishergate York, and archeologists may even know her name – Lady Isabel German.

Isabel, if it was she, would have lived in a small cell in the apse of the church, and would have been given her food through a small window.

She wouldn’t have seen anyone apart from people coming to the window to ask for spiritual advice.

For someone living a religious life it comes as a surprise that her bones show evidence of quite severe venereal disease – syphilis.

Ms Baxter said: “You can speculate – you can say she contracted it in her youth, that she was sexually active. Whether she made the decision to become an anchoress herself, or was made to take that step, I can’t possibly say.”

Also on display in the exhibition starting on September 22 will be the skeleton of a badly injured soldier, who was probably executed – his head had been hacked off – before being thrown into a mass grave following Britain’s bloodiest battle, the Battle of Towton in 1461.

As well as wounds made by a poleaxe to his skull, he also had injuries to his skull, arm and neck from bladed weapons. He also had other wounds from earlier encounters, suggesting he was a seasoned fighter.

Ms Baxter said: “When you come to a museum you see objects, but this is a shared human experience and you can connect with another person in a way that you can’t with other things.

“That was once a living person with the same feelings and thoughts as you.”

Visitors will be asked their views on having skeletons on public display.

Ms Baxter said: “Historic England did a survey back in 2014 asking people about their 
opinions about human remains in museums and overwhelmingly there was support. But it is always going to be sensitive – people can have very strong opinions either way.

“We are going to have iPads for people to give feedback and we are also hoping to have people in the gallery to talk to visitors to gather more qualitative data about people’s feelings and opinions about skeletons being on display.”