Significant assemblages of medieval human remains have been recovered from Perth, particularly from around St John’s Kirk (MPK15175) and from the sites of the former Dominican (MPK5533) and Carmelite (MPK3515) friaries (Fyles et al 2005; D Hall forthcoming). However, fewer burials have been excavated in rural areas of Perth and Kinross. It seems likely that rural churchyards may contain significant numbers of relatively undisturbed medieval graves. These could be a valuable source of evidence – although any investigation would require considerable sensitivity.
Scientific investigation of human remains can enhance our understanding of many aspects of life and death in medieval Scotland. Careful study of the burial assemblages from Perth and Kinross could further our understanding of the age structure of the region’s medieval communities, the geographic origins of local residents, their experiences of health and disease and the types of labour they undertook. For example, evidence of heavy manual labour is present on a significant proportion of the adolescent and adult male remains from St John’s Kirk, but less so on female skeletons. This is perhaps indicative of the differences in the types of labour that men and women engaged in.
Many burials of children, especially of those aged under about five, have been discovered. In part this reflects the relatively high levels of infant mortality common to many medieval societies. However, the St John’s Kirk burials included a large number of juvenile burials even by the standards of medieval Scotland (Fyles et al 2005, 30). Numerous infant and child burials were also found at Elcho Priory. Interestingly, a large proportion of the child burials from Elcho showed evidence of dental disease (Lunt 1972).
Dietary deficiencies are apparent on some medieval skeletons from Perth and Kinross, including rare cases of scurvy. There is arguably a need to consider how evidence for metabolic disorders and dietary-related events can be linked to specific periods of crisis. For instance, can we identify the people who lived through the famine of the early 14th century? In general, we could do far more work using human remains to study nutrient availability and wider environmental shifts. There has been limited research on this topic anywhere in Scotland. However, the large burial assemblages from Perth and Kinross, combined with the fact that famine is documented in the written sources for this region well into the 16th century, make this a topic of particular local significance (R Oram pers comm).
Further research into epidemic disease in the region would also be beneficial. At present, the impact of the Black Death on medieval Perth and Kinross is poorly understood. Burial assemblages could supplement documentary and economic evidence for the disruption posed by this crisis. The impact of subsequent outbreaks of plague should also not be overlooked. For instance, historical research indicates that Perth experienced large numbers of deaths from plague in the 16th century, with apparently 1400 people dying in the burgh during the epidemic of 1584–5 (Oram 2007, 21).
We have only begun to tap the potential of the medieval human remains already excavated in Perth and Kinross. Urban development makes it likely that further large burial assemblages will be uncovered. This offers significant opportunities, but also raises potential challenges regarding reburial, curation and storage. Furthermore, it is probable that scientific methods will continue to develop, creating still more research possibilities for human bones. There are therefore significant practical and ethical questions about how this valuable source of evidence can be managed and preserved for future study (MGS 2011; Historic Environment Scotland 2006; M Hall 2013a; Sharp and Hall 2013).