The redevelopment of the Elephant and Castle Leisure Centre in Southwark, built on the churchyard of the former church of St. Mary Newington, provided the opportunity for archaeological excavation, supported by detailed historic research and archaeometric analysis. A picture has emerged of the landscape surrounding the church, established in what was a rural medieval village, which bore witness to the ravages of the English Civil War and subsequently became assimilated by the largest city of the Industrial Age.
Many striking changes were endured by Newington’s inhabitants and society struggled to keep up with such dramatic transformations, resulting in a proliferation of underworld gangs and prostitution rackets. These changes in the lives of the living were accompanied by amendments to the treatment of the dead: vaults within the churchyard were constructed to keep body snatchers at bay.
The tales told here include stories of the lives of the families interred, with the demography and pathology of the population of Newington revealed through skeletal and isotopic analysis. The evolution of the church, specifically the construction of St. Gabriel’s Chapel of Ease in 1872–3, forms the basis for the last of the vault’s macabre tales, where the recently buried were dug up during the construction of the chapel’s foundations, to be re-interred within the vaults as disarticulated charnel, in some cases ornately arranged.
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