The Case of the Redcliffe Bay Burial, Bristol

There is a National Trust property known as Redcliffe Bay near Portishead, Bristol. I was shown it once on a journey between Tyntesfield and Leigh Woods.

A small bay on the edge of the Severn Estuary. No archaeological sites were known there.

Until last year.. someone spotted a wasp’s nest in the cliff which turned out to be a skull.

The police were called and forensic archaeologists exhumed the skeleton.

When I heard of it I assumed that coastal erosion had revealed a prehistoric or Roman burial but the police phoned to say that the radiocarbon dates were back and although too old for them to follow up, the grave was still quite a recent event.

The body was carefully buried lying face up with arms folded across the pelvis and aligned east to west in a Christian tradition.

There were three peaks in the C14 graph.. within the 95% bracket of probability there was a 32% chance the date was between AD 1645-1685, 47% AD 1735-1810 and 16% AD 1930-1953. The person was most probably buried in the later 18th century. However, the dates bring the burial uncomfortably close to our own time and… why was it there?

Historic maps dating back to the 18th century show Redcliffe Bay as an empty section of coast with no buildings nearby (unlike today).

The forensic scientists examined and measured the skeleton and carried out DNA analysis.

This person was a boy of about 12 who had lived a hard life. He was small for his age with a bent back. His bones and teeth showed that he had been raised on a coarse diet of poor quality food. His lower legs were also damaged as though there had been a regular trauma, perhaps through ill treatment and/or the nature of his normal working life.

There were three finds, but only the nail was definitely from the grave filling. There was an iron buckle and a broken curving silver coated bar with a ball-shaped terminal.

This evidence of the boy’s hard life, death and burial raises many questions. There is not the time distance to give us separation from the facts of his poverty and exploitation.

The factories, back-streets, workhouses and ships of the Bristol docks would have employed many children in the 18th and 19th centuries… though.. he may have been a farm boy from a poor family with no money him properly ….and in the end, could only afford to place their loved one at the field edge, on the shore line… with a fine view out across the channel towards the coast of Wales.

Since writing this Gordon has let me know of Dorset examples of 18th century shore-line burials. It was the usual way that bodies were laid to rest when found washed up on the beach.

4 thoughts on “The Case of the Redcliffe Bay Burial, Bristol

  1. Martin, that is so poignant. Once again, you have helped us touch the past and bring a vivid picture of a person whose life was so short and so harsh but touched with love. Makes me feel grateful to be now!

  2. I would suggest that the body was washed up. It was common before 1800 that shipwrecked sailors were buried on the shoreline, I have recorded several cases of this in Dorset during the eighteenth century, both from documentary sources and ‘archaeologically’ this was a skeleton found and brought to the police in a hikers rucksack! This young man was dated to the late eighteenth century and had suffered from scurvy. It has not yet been properly published.

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