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England’s best surviving medieval charnel chapel now accessible through new 3D model

Archaeologists and computer scientists at the University of Sheffield have developed a new 3D model of the most complete remaining charnel chapel in the UK.

England’s best-surviving medieval charnel chapel now accessible through new 3D model
Villagers have long believed the disarticulated skeletons at the Holy Trinity Church in Rothwell, 
Northamptonshire, were victims of the plague or soldiers from the nearby battle of Naseby 
[Credit: University of Sheffield]
The new 3D model, developed by researchers from the University’s Departments of Archaeology and Computer Science, allows people across the world to step inside Rothwell charnel chapel – a 13th century room which contains the bones of thousands of people who died in Britain between the 13th and 16th centuries.

Charnel chapels were built at some churches in medieval England to house bones that were disturbed while digging new graves. The chapels were generally well-lit and accessible, and most likely provided a location for pilgrims and locals to pray for the souls of the dead while among their physical remains.

England’s best-surviving medieval charnel chapel now accessible through new 3D model
Shelves of crania line the north and south walls at Rothwell Holy Trinity Church since the restacking in 1912 
[Credit: University of Sheffield]
Charnel chapels were thought to be relatively uncommon in medieval England, however archaeologists from the University of Sheffield have identified up to 60 potential charnel chapel sites throughout the UK. Rothwell charnel chapel is the most complete surviving example with medieval remains, but analysis of the site is hampered by issues of access and preservation.

Now, University of Sheffield researchers have used the latest digital humanities technologies, funded by Sheffield’s Digital Humanities Institute (DHI), to create a digital version of the site which researchers and members of the public with an interest in archaeology and history can use to explore the chapel.

England’s best-surviving medieval charnel chapel now accessible through new 3D model
The 700-year-old crypt lies underneath Holy Trinity Church in Rothwell, Northamptonshire 
[Credit: University of Sheffield]
Dr Lizzy Craig-Atkins, who led the project from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Archaeology, said: “Rothwell charnel chapel is a site of major international significance. Surviving charnel chapels, with human remains still housed inside, are very rare in England. What is so fascinating about the Rothwell charnel chapel it is that it presents an ideal archaeological resource for researchers to use to advance our understanding of how the remains of the dead were treated during the medieval period.

“This new digital resource provides an opportunity for people all over the world to explore the site and helps us to preserve this fascinating window into the past for future generations.”

Dr Steve Maddock from the University’s Department of Computer Science, said: "This fascinating project presented us with some unique challenges in creating the model, with important lessons learnt for future cultural heritage projects."

The Rothwell Charnel Chapel Project has also been the subject of several student research projects at the University of Sheffield and the site is a core component of a recently-completed University of Sheffield PhD.

The new digital resource, together with research on the chapel, will be fed into undergraduate and postgraduate programmes for archaeology students at the University of Sheffield.

Archaeologists leading the project are also welcoming the input of researchers who might be interested in working with the model, which has been published via ORDA, the University’s file sharing platform.

To find out more about the 3D model, please visit the Rothwell Charnel Chapel Project's website.

Source: University of Sheffield [October 03, 2017]

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