DERRY (Northern Ireland) - Siege dead found at First Derry
Siege dead found at First Derry
HUMAN remains dating to the time of the Siege of Derry, as well as remnants of pipes and crockery typical of the period, have been discovered beneath First Derry Presbyterian Church.
It is also believed that the car park between the church and the rear of the Apprentice Boys Memorial Hall could be the site of a mass grave or graveyard, possibly containing human remains from those who perished inside Derry's Walls during the 105-day stand off between the Williamite supporters and the opposing Jacobites.
First Derry Minister, Rev Dr David Latimer, has stressed there are no plans to built on top of the car park, thus ensuring that the Siege dead will continue to rest in peace. Indeed, the Minister is keen that the graves are officially recognised
"We originally bought this land because we saw the need for additional car parking space, and I'm glad that we now know that in the past it was a graveyard, and I can tell you that no building is going to take place on it. In fact, I think it would be important to remember the dead buried here. Perhaps we will do that with a plaque erected on one of the walls which simply informs people that during the Siege the bodies of those whose lives were lost in defence in the city were, in fact, buried close to the church. Indeed, as we know from the archaeological dig that took place while work was going on inside the church, there were bones found deep underneath First Derry Church.
"We think of a church being a sacred site and it is, but it's becoming very sacred in that there are remains of people who played a role in defending this city and their remains are going to be protected for ever," he said.
The skeletons have been buried on land both inside and outside the church according to Minister, Rev Dr Latimer.
"When we took all the pews out on the floor of the church, a dig was conducted by the Department of the Environment who had expressed an interest in doing so, and the bones and remains were found in the floor.
Once the 'finds' were recorded and photographs taken, Dr Latimer revealed that a decision was taken to respect their resting place and leave the human remains to rest where they were originally buried.
"We decided to leave them in place rather than attempt anything which would disturb them," he said.
"According to historians the Apprentice Boys hall used to be used as an inn, and the area or space between the inn and where the church is in the 17th Century was discovered to be a place where bodies had been buried and this clearly had been one of the many graveyard sites during the Siege. So the reason why there has always been a space between the Apprentice Boys Hall and First Derry hall appears to be due to respect for the area having been a burial area in the past," he said.
Looking to the future, and the role he would like to see First Derry play in terms of enhancing the city's historical heritage and tourism potential, Dr Latimer said the site could be something that could be developed and included in the planned interpretation centre planned for the refurbished church.
"The more you unwrap the story of this area of the city the more we are finding out, and that leads you to think about how to share this information with the city, tourists and visitors.
"Indeed, if there is a young history student looking for a suitable research project I'd certainly like to be put in touch with them. This certainly could be a good PhD for a budding historian to develop," he said.
When contacted about the discovery of the human remains at the site, a spokesman for the Environment and Heritage Service, Jim Wilson, said the ongoing renovations at First Derry were being part-funded with 'Listed Building Grant Aid' from the Northern Ireland Environment Agency.
"There has been Presbyterian worship at or close to the site of the First Presbyterian Church since 1675 when a Presbyterian Meeting House was built. The earliest incarnation of the First Derry Presbyterian Church was constructed on Magazine Street Upper in 1690, with the assistance of a grant from Queen Mary in recognition of the bravery of the townsfolk displayed during the siege. The church was rebuilt in 1780 and repaired in 1828 and is a Grade B+ listed building," he said, by way of a potted history of the church on Magazine Street.
He revealed that the Northern Ireland Environment Agency had asked the Centre for Archaeological Fieldwork (CAF) at Queen's University Belfast, to use the opportunity provided by the renovations to carry out an evaluation excavation at the church to see if there was evidence of surviving archaeological remains beneath the existing church.
"The excavation has been carried out under the direction of Cormac McSparron from the CAF. Two trenches, each measuring two metres by two metres, have been excavated in two gaps in the floorboards, which had been opened for the placement of temporary roof supports.
"The excavations uncovered the remains of an earlier stone wall, running approximately northeast-southwest, beneath the existing church," he said, adding: "The wall was situated above soil layers which contained human remains including a human skeleton."
"Artefacts found in the soil around the human remains and beneath the wall, such as clay pipe bowls and pottery from Britain, Ireland and Continental Europe, date to the 1600s, some to the late 1600s.
"This suggests that the burials which found with them may also date to the later 17th century, possibly to the period of the Siege of Derry, and that the stone wall above them may be part of the fabric of the initial phase of construction of the First Derry Presbyterian Church in 1690," said Jim.
He added: "Excavations ceased once the human remains and the stone wall were uncovered, as they were not under threat from the renovations at the church and once scale drawings had been made and photographs taken the archaeological remains were preserved in situ and the excavation trenches backfilled. The NIEA is delighted that the works at the church provided this rare opportunity to investigate the buried history of the building." Speaking about the finds during the dig, archaeologist Cormac McSparron said "quite a large collection of artefacts" has been unearthed, which included lots of clay pipe bowls of dated to the 17th Century
"We also found a good collection of 17th and early 18th Century pottery. The pot types include Staffordshire trailed slipware, dating from the mid to late 17th Century, and German Westerwald stoneware, dating from mid to late 17th Century, as well as tin glazed earthenwares of Irish or English manufacture from the late 17th to 18th Century," he said, adding: "In addition there were animal bones, oyster shells and, of course, human remains, which we did not disturb."
Asked for 'an educated guess' as to whether a mass grave existed, Mr McSparron said: "It is probably a mass grave, but it is hard to say for sure. Certainly the finds suggest from the relatively small area that we opened at that end of the church, that there were quite a number of burials. We have one articulated skeleton, a skull in another church and at the side of that church we have more bones emerging, so we have at least three sets of human remains within two relatively small churches that pre-date the existing church.
"It is reasonable to extrapolate that there are likely to be a lot of burials in the area. The material found around them are compatible with the Siege period, but that's not to say they couldn't just be ordinary burials from the two previous churches in that area," he said, adding: "We are near to the Augustine Friary, so there is a possibility that this indicates a continuity of worship and use of the land for graves. But, that said, they could also be Siege related, but we are not able to prove this beyond doubt."
Mr McSparron continued: "Obviously, if we were to excavate the area fully and if we found evidence of trauma on them then it might indicate it was Siege related, but because of the nature of excavation we did not disturb them, because we did not want to damage them. They are human remains and we treated them with reverence and respect."
Asked how he felt when excavating site and unearthing human remains, Mr McSparron said: "You get multiple feelings. Firstly, sometimes you get a feeling of excitement that you have found something very special; then it reinforces your own feeling of mortality, and to some extent you get an idea of the human story and what happen to them and what their life was like with remains more so than with artefacts. When you uncover human remains I feel a very personal connection with the person. You are not dealing with something that someone made, you are dealing with a person, so I feel a mixture of reverence, excitement, awe and a little fear that this is also how you will end up."