This year Durham University’s Department of Archaeology is working with a local theatre company Cap-a-Pie to create a new show – Woven Bones. The show is based on the story of Scottish soldiers who were taken prisoner after the Battle of Dunbar in 1650.
The Scottish soldiers project grew from a discovery of human remains during construction work on Durham’s UNESCO World Heritage Site. The remains of 28 young men were found in two mass graves at Durham University’s Palace Green Library. Painstaking excavation and analysis revealed that they were some of more than 1600 men who died in captivity after the Civil War Battle of Dunbar in September 1650.
These were ordinary people who had been caught up in extraordinary events. Many would have been recent recruits to the Scottish army, young men taken from day-to-day life to fight invading Parliamentary forces. Their first experience of battle was a disastrous defeat. Lasting under an hour, the Battle of Dunbar was one of the most brutal, bloody and short battles of the 17th Century civil wars.
Reports from the time suggest that anything between 300-5,000 soldiers died at the battle with a further 6,000 captured. It is thought that 1,000 sick and wounded soldiers were released, while approximately 4,000 endured an eight-day forced march to Durham, where they were imprisoned in the then-disused Cathedral church. Many died of malnutrition, disease and cold whilst in Durham. Their bodies were buried, hastily and without ceremony, in an obscure corner nearby.
This was the story of those men whose remains we found in November 2013. But the Scottish Soldiers Archaeology Project Team has found out much more about the people who had died at Durham and about their fellow prisoners who survived. Some of those men were sent far from home; 150 Scots went to New England as indentured servants. After seven years of working in the woods and ironworks of Massachusetts and Maine, they were free to make new lives in a new world.
One chaotic and terrifying hour of battle changed the lives of thousands. The road from Dunbar led some to unmarked graves in Durham and others to lives on the edge of the known world.
Talks, news reports and interviews undertaken by the Durham University research team have drawn strong reactions to this extraordinary story. The chance to tell it in a different way, to put a very direct and very human interpretation on the research results, is why the team were keen to work with Cap-a-Pie. Thousands of prisoners, five archaeologists, three actors; one fascinating story.
Cap-a-Pie will present Laura Lindow’s play Woven Bones at venues between Dunbar and Durham in June and July. After each performance members of the archaeology team will be taking part in a post-show discussion and Q&A. We hope to meet you at one of the performances.