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

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New Delhi: University of Sheffield research team develop 3D model of England’s best-surviving medieval charnel chapel
Rothwell charnel chapel contains the bones of thousands of people, many of whom died between the 13th and 16th centuries
Charnel chapels housed bones disturbed while digging new graves in medieval cemeteries
Research provides new insights into funerary practices in medieval Britain

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.

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.

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.

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.