The Dunbar Martyrs and the Ethics of Bioarcheology

In 2013, beneath the Durham Cathedral, a mass grave was found. Archaeologists watched carefully as construction on a café occurred beside the cathedral, ensuring the old church would remain unharmed. Instead, a more interesting archaeological event occurred. Under corner of the cathedral lay approximately 17 people of a mystery origin. (Durham University, 2018) Immediately, bioarcheologists collected and analyzed the remains. The goal of the bioarcheologists was to discover the context of death and burial. Due to location and the assumed time period, it was suspected that this grave was the result of the bubonic plague. This assumption had some merit, especially considering the pattern of the bones.

Figure 1: The placement of bodies in the grave. Retrieved from

The bodies appeared to be placed haphazardly, even thrown, into the grave. More analysis of the bones revealed linear scratches on the surface, consistent with the knowing of rodents. This evidence suggested an improper burial. (Gerrard, C. J. et al. (2018))

Further evidence revealed that all the remains were young men, most likely soldiers. Archaeologists at Durham University revealed that the remains were that of Scottish prisoners, known as the Durham Martyrs, of war, detained on the orders of Oliver Cromwell, an English soldier and statesman at the time of the English Civil Wars. It is estimated that 1,700 prisoners of war were buried in Durham, this find represents only a small portion of these casualties. (Mark Brown, 2015)

This discovery brought with it an abundance of ethical issues. The only bodies taken for examination were those disrupted by construction, but the excavation of the disrupted bodies caused questions of proper burial and repatriation. In 2015, the university of Durham announced they would be reburying the remains, but not in Scotland—the remains were to stay in Durham. This caused outrage, and campaigners rose up, urging the university to bury the bones in their native Scotland. Despite the controversy, the remains were buried in Durham. (Jody Harrison, 2016) Though the reburial provides an unethical example of reburial, and demonstrates the complications of ownership in archaeology, the archaeologists studying the Durham martyrs brought awareness to the English Civil War, and the plight of the soldiers. (Figure 2)

           Figure 2: The team of archaeologists at Durham University; Retrieved from

Following the reburial in 2018, the University of Durham published an online course detailing the lives and deaths of the soldiers, and the role of archaeology in bringing their stories back to life.



Anon. “An archaeological case study: The Scottish soldiers.” FutureLearn. Durham University.

Brown, M. 2015. September 2. “Skeletons found near Durham Cathedral were Oliver Cromwell’s prisoners.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, September 2.

Gerrard, C.M., R. Annis, A. Caffell, C.P. Graves, A. Millard, and J. Beaumont. 2018. Lost lives, new voices: Unlocking the stories of the Scottish soldiers at the Battle of Dunbar, 1650. Oxford, Englands: Oxbow Books.

Millard, A. 2022. April 25. “Durham University Scottish Soldiers Project.” Scottish Prisoners of War Society | Promoting knowledge of the Scottish prisoners from the Battles of Dunbar (1650) and Worcester (1651). Scottish Prisoners of War Society, April 25.

University, D. 2021. June 4. “A long way from home:” Scottish Soldiers – Durham University. June 4.

Further Reading

2 thoughts on “The Dunbar Martyrs and the Ethics of Bioarcheology

  1. The interpretation of this site is public archaeology. The free online course from Durham University caters to the public by avoiding using specialized jargon, and allowing the public to access it for free. The intended audience of the course and the discoveries from the site is the general public.

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