Preston's 'Dock Skulls'
Dr Michael Wysocki from the University of Central Lancashire’s School of Forensic & Investigative Sciences has researched the Preston Dock Skulls, which you can now see in the Harris Museum & Art Gallery’s 'Discover Preston' gallery. Hilary Machell from the museum told YAC more...
The skulls were found when Preston Dock was dug out in the 1880s.
To create the dock, the River Ribble had to be diverted to make it straighter for boats. The river had itself changed course several times over the centuries as well, so the area was marshy and full of river sediment and other deposits.
In total, 23 human skulls and 25 skulls belonging to aurochs, an ancient breed of cattle, were found. There were also red deer, sheep and whale bones, along with two dug-out log boats!
Was there a massacre?
It was originally thought that the large number of human skulls showed that there had been a massacre and/or mass burial. However, these theories were suggested before modern techniques such as radiocarbon dating and forensic anthropology were invented.
We now have very good information about how human and animal bodies decompose in water. The skull will always become detached from the rest of the skeleton and is more likely to become trapped in a bend in a river than other bones. So, skulls which found their way into the river over many centuries could easily be found in the same small area.
Different archaeological periods
Although not all of the skulls have been carbon dated, they have been shown to date from widely differing periods. The skulls look similar – you can’t tell their age by looking at them. However, scientists at Liverpool John Moores University have carbon dated a number of them and found that they date from periods as follows:
Neolithic (new stone age) from around 3000 BC
Bronze Age from around 2100 BC
Iron Age from around 750 BC
Anglo-Saxon from around 450 AD
Roman from 44 BC
Dr Mick Wysocki ’s reseach shows that one is an early Neolithic adult female, dating from 3820 BC to 3640 BC. The skull has the ‘classic’ features of one that has been in the water a long time; it has been smoothed away by water, especially at the bottom.
A violent death!
One of the most interesting skulls that Dr Wysocki described is also female; an Anglo-Saxon adult (AD 680–890) from the Viking period.
There is a sharp cut above the eye which has cut into the bone and is probably the result of a sword blow. There is also a sharp, clean cut across the top. This does show that at least some of the people found among the Preston Dock Skulls group did not die a natural death!
A Neolithic 'skull cult'?
Of the 23 skulls, nine have so far been chosen for carbon dating. What is interesting is that those which have been dated, five have been found to be Neolithic. Some academics think that there may have been a Neolithic 'skull cul't in which skulls were deliberately put into the water. Lots of the skulls do have a similar elongated shape to the Neolithic skulls, so Dr Wysocki thinks that there may be others of this period. We will have to wait and find out!
See for yourself!
The Preston Dock Skulls are on display in the Harris Museum & Art Gallery in Preston in the 'Discover Preston' gallery. Why not pop along take a look at them yourself. Perhaps you’ll develop your own theory?!
Remember: If you are a member of a YAC club, you can get a 10% discount in the museum shop at the Harris Museum & Art Gallery with your YAC Pass Card! Find out more about this special offer here.
Blog written by Hilary Machell based on a talk by Dr Michael Wysocki