Who were the humans buried on Rat Island?
One of them could have been a convicted criminal or murderer. One was likely a clay pipe smoker, and another had damage to his shoulder similar to that found on skeletons thought to be archers discovered from the wreck of the Mary Rose.
The human remains were unearthed on Rat Island – also known as Burrow Island – in Gosport, during a storm in 2014. They were discovered by a member of the public who initially contacted the Police to investigate whether the bones were in fact human and how recent they were.
I was then involved with further excavation of the site overlooking Portsmouth harbour earlier this year along with other Cranfield colleagues and members of Operational Nightingale and Breaking Ground Heritage.
We excavated nine skeletons from the island and brought them back to the laboratories at Cranfield Forensic Institute for further analysis. Our aim was to understand if they were male or female, their age-at-death, their stature, diet, health status and other information about their lifestyle and living conditions overall.
Inside the lab, the first step was to lay the human remains out anatomically in order to determine which bones were present and to record any additional bones, separate any animal bones and annotate any damage.
This assessment revealed that the skeletons have been preserved to varying degrees, some with bones, including feet and lower legs, missing. Some damage may have occurred due to the weather, coastal erosion and other factors during the over 100 years that they were in the ground.
It is thought that the skeletons could be prisoners, or prisoners of war from prison ships moored in the harbour – possibly French, American, Spanish, Dutch or Portuguese, or from other countries the UK was at war with in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Chemical analysis of the skeletons may shed light on some of this, as well as their diet.
Our initial analysis shows that the skeletons were all men, ranging between 17 and 40 years old at the time of death. It is possible to get a sense of their ages by the fusion or development of their bones. Bone degeneration – which tends to start approximately over the age of 30–40 years – can be an indicator of age too; whilst height can be calculated from the length of the femur (thigh bone).
Estimating the sex of the individuals relied on the examination of the pelvis and the skull, with narrower traits in the hips being characteristically male.
Examining teeth can give an insight into diet and be an indication of malnutrition in life. Dental cavities can be a sign of infections caused by poor dental hygiene.
Prisoners generally had worse diets than soldiers, who tended to receive regular meals for the most part of their time in service. Again, through chemical analysis, using carbon and nitrogen isotopes, more information on diet may be inferred and help to establish whether a more terrestrial or marine diet was being consumed, and the amount of meat included.
A skeleton with a round notch carved out across its top and bottom teeth was possibly a clay pipe smoker. Many clay pipe stems and bowls have been recovered from the site on Rat Island so this could be further evidence of a popular contemporary past time, and also of local industry, with it being known that there were pipe manufacturers in operation around the Portsmouth area at the time.
One of the skeletons had a craniotomy, with the skull being cut in half from one side and then snapped apart completely. This could have been done because the individual was a convicted criminal, possibly a murderer, or could be due to the person having a disease or medical condition which doctors at the time wanted to know more about. This practice of autopsy will be further investigated by reading medical documents from the time.
Complete craniotomies with signs of saw and cut marks have also been found on two skeletons excavated from the nearby burial grounds of the Royal Naval Hospital Haslar, Gosport, in 2008. The individuals are young males and are assumed to have been serving Naval personnel who died within the hospital. There is no clear reason why these two individuals were chosen for post-mortem study, however given the medical setting, their selection was likely motivated by medical research.
Sometimes specific muscle markers on bones can also be a sign of a tough life, although there needs to be caution in interpreting and drawing conclusions from these.
The left and right shoulder blades on another skeleton are different in shape and show some signs of degeneration (for example, wear and tear) which may have been caused by external stress at the shoulder joint. It isn’t possible to say exactly what caused this but similar wearing has been found on skeletons thought to be archers recovered from the wreck of Henry VIII’s warship, the Mary Rose.
The next step is to try to find out more about where the individuals came from and their possible nationalities. This may be possible through chemical analysis of the bones and teeth, including isotope testing whereby oxygen levels can be used to determine geographic origin.
The findings of our analysis will also be shown as part of a Digging for Britain episode – filmed with the director of the Rat Island project, MOD archeologist Richard Osgood – on BBC Four later this year.
About CFI excavations at Royal Naval Hospital Haslar
CFI archaeologists have been excavating at the burial grounds of the Royal Naval Hospital Haslar in Gosport (1753-1826) since 2007. A total of 69 individuals have been studied throughout the course of the research project, with two having craniotomies (2008 excavation season) similar to that on the skeleton from Rat Island. The burials at Haslar Hospital represent a different population to those recovered at Rat Island although similarities in time period, status and marginalisation from mainstream society can be drawn.
About Operation Nightingale
Operation Nightingale is a recovery programme for wounded injured and sick service personnel using archaeology, run by the Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO).
Additional information regarding the excavations at Royal Naval Hospital Haslar provided by Charlotte Willis
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Hi, I was watching Digging for Britain and it bought my attention to this site.
When I first saw reference to this area I thought that my ancestor my have been one of the bodies found here but I now realise that this is unlikely – but I am interested nonetheless. I had previously seen a reference to this excavation under the name of Rats Island, rather than Burrow Island (although I now believe they refer to the same place). According to family research my 5xGreat-granfather. Francis Fever died on a prison hulk at Portsmouth in 1798 but, as he would have been 44 he was probably too old too have been one of the bodies found. However if there is more information abouit this dig I would be most interested.