Wednesday, June 8th, 2011
A team of archaeologists from the University of Bristol has uncovered a skeleton buried in the garden of The Chantry, the Berkeley, Gloucestershire home of Dr. Edward Jenner, vaccination pioneer and father of immunology.
The skeleton hasn’t been carbon dated yet, but it was found underneath an 8th century Anglo-Saxon monastery, so archaeologists estimate that it dates to the Roman or sub-Roman (meaning the centuries after the end of the Roman occupation in 410 A.D.) eras. Since material remains from the chaotic period of the decline of Roman Britain and the rise of Anglo-Saxon Britain are not often found, this discovery is a rare one.
Excavation leader Professor Mark Horton said it was “a completely unexpected but really important discovery”.
He added: “It fills in the history between the Roman villa that we believe is on the site and the Anglo-Saxon monastery discovered during earlier digs.”
At this point what we can tell is that the skeleton belonged to an adult but we can’t tell the sex yet. It was cut in half by a ditch dug after the original burial. Roman material was found in this ditch, which could have been left there either by Romans or by later residents after looting Roman buildings nearby.
This burial suggests that Berkeley may have been a religious site of note before the Anglo-Saxon mynster was built there in the 8th century. That monastery was sizeable — as large as the one in Gloucester that would later become Gloucester Cathedral — and the discovery of a body buried on that spot indicates there may have been an ongoing religious tradition associated with the location.
Professor Horton notes: “It just goes to show that you never quite know what lies under your feet. It is unlikely that Dr. Jenner was aware of these unexpected neighbours lurking at the bottom of his garden.”
Unaware of the thousand years beneath his feet, Jenner made history in his garden all on his own. He developed the smallpox vaccine from the blisters of cowpox-struck milkmaids in The Chantry, and in 1796 he inoculated the first patient, a son of his gardener named James Phipps, in a rustic summerhouse he built in the backyard. For years he used that hut to administer vaccinations to the area poor, free of charge. The Temple of Vaccinia, as the hut became known, still stands as a testament to Jenner’s discovery.
Dr. Jenner’s house is a museum now. Visitors to The Chantry will be allowed to view the excavation and even speak to the archaeologists through Thursday.