ARCHAEOLOGISTS LOOK FOR TRUTH IN THE OLD MYTHS ABOUT ISLAND’S PAST
Burrow Island (often referred to as ‘Rat Island’) sits in Portsmouth Harbour forming the entrance to Forton Lake (creek) over in Gosport. The small tidal island is accessible by foot from Priddy’s Yard (home of the Explosion Museum of Naval Firepower) but is off limits to the public as it is MOD property. Last year archaeologists undertook Exercise Magwitch, an excavation of the island with operatives from Operation Nightingale and Breaking Ground Heritage. Their dig on a sunny four days in May last year was to find out just what (and who) lay beneath the island’s surface.
The small tidal island is accessible by foot…but is off limits to the public as it is MOD property…
Burrow ‘Rat’ Island out in Portsmouth Harbour.
Dig team working on the low tide shoreline of the island.
Searching for small finds with spoil from the pits.
Prison hulks were decommissioned or captured ships converted in the 1800s for floating prisons that were home to convicted prisoners and prisoners of war…
Prison Hulks and Charles Dickens
For over 200 years an urban myth has been shared on both sides of Portsmouth Harbour …with suggestions that this small island was the site of buried prisoners who had perished on the numerous prison hulks that lined the west side of Portsmouth Harbour. Prison hulks were decommissioned or captured ships converted in the 1800s for floating prisons that were home to convicted prisoners and prisoners of war (principally French). Nearly two dozen hulks were moored up between 1796 and 1814 in the harbour and were home to on average 7000 individuals at any one time.
Conditions on board these dilapidated hulks were terrible. The ships themselves would have had their masts, rigging and rudders removed and the prisoners were essentially trapped out in the fast flowing tidal harbour waters. Portsmouth’s own Charles Dickens would have known of these hulks in Portsmouth Harbour and they would have probably been a direct inspiration for the character Abel Magwitch, the escaped convict in the literary classic Great Expectations.
Origins of Exercise Magwitch
In early 2014 the South Coast suffered from a number of heavy storms and strong tides, resulting in the shoreline of Burrow Island being heavily eroded. With sand and shingle washed away revealing several human remains, the Police were quickly alerted by members of the public. The Defence Infrastructure Organisation of the Ministry of Defence was quickly mobilised and carried out emergency recovery work on the site. The team, including members from Operation Nightingale, began excavation work in February 2014 after receiving permission from the Ministry of Justice.
After this 2014 dig a more detailed excavation was planned that would remove the skeletons identified in 2014 and look to further understand the remains and the historical context of their burial site. A team of veterans from Operation Nightingale and Breaking Ground Heritage were brought together with experts and a support team for the 4-day dig that happen in May 2017.
With sand and shingle washed away revealing several human remains, the Police were quickly alerted…
Burial pit on Burrow Island.
Measuring a skeleton in one of the burial pits.
Carefully recovering a skull.
…initiative developed to use archaeology as a means of aiding the recovery of service personnel injured in recent conflict…
Operation Nightingale is a military initiative developed to use archaeology as a means of aiding the recovery of service personnel injured in recent conflict, particularly in Afghanistan.
There is a close correlation between the skills required by the modern soldier and those of the professional archaeologist. These skills include surveying, geophysics (for ordnance recovery or revealing cultural heritage sites), scrutiny of the ground (for improvised explosive devices or artefacts), site and team management, mapping, navigation and the physical ability to cope with hard manual work in often-inclement weather conditions.
Members of Operation Nightingale were on the ground at the dig for Exercise Magwitch.
Dig team working on the burial pits around the edge of the island.
Recovering a bone from one of the skeletons.
In the end both digs carefully and respectfully recovered 12 sets of remains from the Island (4 recovered as part of Exercise Magwitch)…
The dig on Burrow Island between the 2nd and 5th of May 2017 brought a large team from over the UK down to Portsmouth Island. The group worked during the low tide hours and excavated carefully the human remains around the edges of small island’s shore and included numerous archaeological finds.
Before the excavation the dig personnel undertook specialist training at the Cranfield Forensic Institute in how to carefully handle and identify the bones expected to be discovered on Burrow Island. The sessions also included training on how to identify from the skeleton bones basic data about the individual, such as sex and approximate age.
In the end both digs carefully and respectfully recovered 12 sets of remains from the Island (4 recovered as part of Exercise Magwitch), with the follow scientific research to be worked on and published in due course. Early indications suggest that all of the remains belonged to young men, of around 18-21 years of age.
Recovered jaw bone.
Wood from the remains of a coffin.
One thing of particular interest was that the archaeologist discovered that one of the skeletons had a Craniotomy, which is most unusual. There are a number of possible explanations: (a) it could have been a post-mortem examination; (b) it could have been used as a medical training cadaver; (c) there is some anecdotal evidence that, around the Napoleonic period, prisoners that were convicted of murder had this procedure performed on them after death…! One of the skulls has been since been worked on for fascial reconstruction.
Looking forward to finding out more about this dig in this month’s issue of Current Archaeology Magazine and the future scientific published research.
A huge thank you to our friend Harvey Mills for the heads up on this fascinating project. Harvey is an awesome local photographer and was the official photographer for Exercise Magwitch, all the images in this article were shot by Harvey.
One last thing: as mentioned before this is MOD property and out of bounds to members of the public. These digs were carefully organised with specific permissions and with highly skilled and experienced personnel, please don’t go exploring yourself on Burrow Island.
Walking back to shore from Burrow Island.
Working with 2014 skeletal remains.
Learning how to identify bones and reconstruct a skeleton.
Careful handling of a skull.