On a mid-December day in 1642, mounted troops of William Waller’s Parliamentarian army stormed into Winchester Cathedral. The havoc they created was shocking: they smashed the organ to splinters, tore up prayer books and hymnals and, finally, toppled a series of wooden chests from niches high up on the presbytery screen, scattering the bones of the long-dead saints, bishops, kings and queens contained within.
This act of desecration might seem a sideshow in the greater theatre of the English Civil War, but as bioarchaeologist Cat Jarman relates in The Bone Chests, it was a targeted attack on a sense of identity rooted in possession of the physical remains of the sacred and secular leaders of the past. In her previous book, River Kings, Jarman used the travels of a humble carnelian bead to illuminate the Viking world. This time, the objects of her scrutiny are the four centuries’ worth of mortal remains contained in the Winchester chests. With these as the thread, the reader is treated to a synopsis of Anglo-Saxon history, a reflection on the role the bones played in shaping that history and, perhaps most fascinatingly, an account of the misadventures of those bones – of which Waller’s act of desecration was only the most notorious – until they finally arrived in the laboratories of 21st-century archaeologists, who set themselves the task of puzzling out whom the 1,300 remaining bone fragments from twenty-three unique individuals actually belonged to.
Bones in the early medieval world were big business. The prestige associated with possession of the remains of ecclesiastical titans, saintly superstars and monarchs was such that in the ninth century Venetian merchants were moved to smuggle the corpse of St Mark the Evangelist from its resting place