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The Thornton Abbey Project

 One Curator’s Journey in Archaeology

By Nicole Aszalos, Musuem of Ontario Archaeology Curator

For the month of June, I spent most of my days out of the office and in the trenches at Thornton Abbey in North Lincolnshire, England. Since this was my first time in England, I wanted to experience as much as I possibly could. To do this, I left a few days early to travel to the cities of York and Leeds to gain an understanding and appreciation of the history I was hoping to unearth. And, being the Harry Potter fan that I am, I just had to venture on a day touring The Shambles, an opportunity that the nerd in me fully appreciated.

Nicole at The Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds. Also had the opportunity to shoot a crossbow here which was a cool experience.
Nicole at The Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds. “I also had the opportunity to shoot a crossbow here which was a cool experience.”

My goal in York and Leeds was to gain an understanding of the museums and their presentation of history, since this is something I am passionate about.  I spent my days touring museums and historic sites such as York Minister, York Castle Museum, and the Royal Armouries in Leeds just to name a few. It was exciting to see how interactive these museums were with engaging the visitor in history.  The museums I visited created immersive experiences by combining both historic objects and modern technology in their displays. One of the most immersive and unsettling experiences happened while exploring the dungeons of York Castle Museum where projections of actors, representing some of the most notorious people hung at the gallows, performed in each cell.  Being the active person I am, I also spent a couple hours hiking historic paths including what remains of the Roman Wall in York.

The Excavation

On Saturday June 11th I arrived at the Thornton Abbey Project excavation camp mid-afternoon by train. It was dreary and cold, and I was jet-lagged. There were about 15 of us there by the end of the night, with the majority of us being either Canadian or American. We worked the site 6 days of the week, rain or shine. Our excavation included an area of trenches that were re-opened from last year and one new one, so the first few days were digging out the remaining back-fill before we could start into the new levels where the skeletons were buried.

I can’t go into detail on all that was uncovered during the excavation because of the sensitive nature of the excavation.  Also, the Thornton Abbey Project is an active excavation, so I can’t discuss specific details until after the project is finished.  This will help prevent treasure hunters or ‘head hunters’ if you will from taking some of the human remains (especially the skull) as prizes from the site.  I will say that finding my first skeleton was an amazing experience. I was brimming with so much anticipation with every animal bone and iron nail uncovered from the upper levels (which was a lot) that I decided to work our day off – which was a great choice ,since that was the day I found and uncovered my first skeleton.

Uncovering Human Remains

Nicole excavating at Thornton Abbey.
Me unearthing my first skeleton with Mary.

Uncovering the human remains is quite a meticulous process, but the cautiousness and care that it takes to uncover a skeleton is something that I loved most about it.  It is important to be very careful because the human remains we were excavating were upwards of 1000 years old and very fragile. We want to prevent as much damage to the remains as we can while excavating them, especially because they can potentially become more fragile the longer they are exposed to the elements.

It was like putting together pieces of a puzzle with each bone that was unearthed. The coolest part of it, though, was being able to see the individuals’ age and health at their time of death and possibly see some of the diseases they had. When my excavation partner Mary and I were able to uncover and lift the skeleton we were working on, we were able to see the evidence of Diffuse Idiopathic Skeletal Hyperostosis (DISH) on his spine and learn firsthand the impacts disease can have on the body.  DISH is a calcification of the ligaments located along the spine that most often occurs in older people. During the time period that these burials are related to, the disease is often a result of their diet. Our skeleton that displayed symptoms of DISH was an older gentleman who had it along the lumbar portion of his back.  It was very interesting to see an example of DISH first hand by actually handling the vertebrae that displayed these symptoms instead of viewing pictures in a book.

The rest of the last week continued with more excavations of burials, including multiple disturbed burials. These were fascinating. As I was trying to find the arm of one skeleton I ended up coming across the leg of another. One student came across an upside down mandible on the pelvis of the skeleton he was unearthing. Finds like those made for even more interesting days on the field. Overall this was a great experience. I would do it again in a heartbeat (even with the cold and rainy weather).

If anyone would like to learn more about the purpose of the 2016 excavations and some history behind the site, feel free to check out the Thornton Abbey Project

Additional Resources:

Students speak about their experiences at the Thornton Abbey Project site:

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