What to do with the remains of medieval Christians discovered beneath what used to be the Peaseholme Centre? STEPHEN LEWIS reports.

From a first glance, it looks just like any other building site that has been cleared ready for development.

It is only when you look closer that you notice the bones: fragments of skull sticking out of the earth; longer arm and leg bones; bits of what might be rib. With a slightly queasy feeling you realise that, yes, they are human remains.

This is where the Peasholme hostel on Peasholme Green once stood, and where, until the council decided to move into the West Offices instead, its new HQ was to be.

But it is also the site of a long-lost medieval church, known as All Saints, Peasholme. And those bits of human bone sticking out of the mud are the remains of medieval Christians buried in the churchyard centuries ago.

There could be as many as 350 people buried here and they are giving the city council a bit of a headache.

The authority is keen to sell the land for development. But before it can do so, all the bodies will need to be removed, and either taken away for further study, or reburied on the site in a specially-designed ossuary, or bonehouse.

City archaeologist John Oxley stressed that it is a process that needs to be completed with great care and respect.

He said: “The bones lying here in the mud are the remains of people. And it is sobering to think that the last people to have seen them were probably the grieving relatives who stood at their gravesides as they were laid to rest.

“It is unlikely that any of the remains here will ever be identified. But it is highly likely that there are relatives of these people still living in York.”

Archaeologists believe All Saints, Peasholme, dates from just before or after the Norman Conquest. It stood for about 500 years, before being closed by Act of Parliament in 1559, in the re-ordering of local parishes that resulted from the reformation and Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries.

Ben Reeves of the York Archaeological Trust, who is leading the recovery of the bones said the cemetery was probably in use for about five centuries.

He said: “Most people were probably buried in shrouds rather than coffins – coffins tend to leave evidence behind, such as nails or stains in the ground from decomposing wood, and there is little evidence of that here.”

What the archaeologists have found is that many earlier burials were disturbed by later burials as generation after generation was interred here.

Mr Oxley said: “Ancient burial grounds are not uncommon in York – they are all over the place, dating from as long ago as the Roman period.

“What is unusual about this one is how close the human remains are to the surface – literally sticking out of the mud in some places.

“That is probably because once All Saints Church closed, it was cleared and the area became part of the Peasholme Green wool market which subsequently, in the 1820s, became the haymarket. At that point, the ground was lowered and levelled, and many of the burials were disturbed.

“It is because the remains are so close to the surface that they need to be removed. Generally, where remains are several feet below the ground, it is usual to leave them undisturbed and to build over them.

“That is what is happening with the burial ground associated with another long-vanished church, St John in the Marsh, which stood on an area of what is now Hungate, nearer the Foss.

“Because the church was nearer the river, it was on lower ground: which means the remains are more deeply buried. The new public square that will form part of the completed Hungate development will be built above them.

“The human remains here, however, once having been recovered, will either be put into storage at the Yorkshire Museum, or else laid permanently to rest in an ossuary on this very site.

“When that happens, it is very likely that a priest will say a few prayers over them. They were Christians so it would be highly appropriate to have some form of service to recognise that.”