Return to Rat Island

Remains from a minimum of 11 individuals – doubling the number so far found – were recorded and retrieved under license.

In Current Archaeology 339, we reported the discovery of a number of human skeletons on the ominously named ‘Rat Island’ in Gosport, Hampshire. These burials had been exposed as a result of erosion following winter storms and were found to be those of adult males – probably prisoners from the prison hulks that had been moored in the harbour in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Photo: Crown.

Since this article, inclement weather has not ceased, and further elements have been revealed. A combined team of military police, Operation Nightingale personnel, and archaeologists returned to the island in March to recover any components that had been disturbed. In fact, remains from a minimum of 11 individuals – doubling the number so far found – were recorded and retrieved under license. On initial examination, these appear to show some potentially interesting pathological traits (though, unlike in CA 339, no skulls with craniotomies – suggesting they had undergone a medical autopsy – were recorded this time) and it is hoped that further analysis by the team’s osteologists will provide even more information on the lives of the people buried on the island.

The work showed, again, that the majority of individuals had been interred in coffins, with iron and copper nails still in place, but also that the cemetery was much more extensive than first thought; both vertically and horizontally with stacked coffins. A dry-stonewall present on the cliff face appears to have been built to revett the edge of the cemetery and to try to prevent the erosion that is now occurring. Furthermore, some coffins had cut through earlier graves with the initial remains then forming part of the later grave backfill.

Although there were no grave goods accompanying these burials, a rather splendid clay pipe bowl was recovered from the backfill above one grave. This depicted a warship of a type made popular in the nation after the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. It had been manufactured by a Thomas Frost of Southampton, and was found within sight of HMS Victory, that most famous of warships from the battle – a lovely piece of archaeological serendipity.

TEXT: Richard Osgood