Saturday, August 24, 2013

A Summer's Day At Britain's Biggest Bone Pile

As I write this miscellaneous post I'm reminded of that classic school room task beloved of teachers everywhere entitled, What Did You Do Over The Summer?  While this isn't going to be an essay on messing about in row boats or catching dragonflies in jars or the greedy consumption of jam scones with lashings of ginger beer, it does concern a late August sight-seeing sojourn to a hazy Kent town.  However, what began with antique shops and tearooms ended with a trip down to the small, enshadowed crypt of St Leonard's church in Hythe wherein lies Britain's largest and best-preserved collection of ancient human bones.

The crypt itself is small and narrow with a vaulted ceiling and is dominated by a stack of bones and skulls measuring 7.5 metres in length, 1.8 metres in width and a little over 1.8 metres in height.   The bones themselves are said to be 700 years old or so, but the bone pile itself was assembled in 1908.

The Hythe ossuary consists too of shelves in four arched bays containing just over 1000 skulls, which makes for an arresting, humbling sight.  As I stood before them, I tried - and failed - to keep in my mind the idea that every one of the hollow, dry skulls was once a living, breathing person; an individual with memories, connections, feelings and dreams.  This was a memento mori on a grand scale.


While Hythe's ossuary might be the biggest in Britain, its accretion of ghostly bones pales further in comparison with the Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic, which was the subject of a short 1970 film by Jan Svankmajer - see below!


  1. Having lived there a few years, Hythe is THE place where old people go to spend their last days. So really it's no surprise it has such a sizeable collection of human remains.

    1. Haha - yes, indeed! Hythe was very 'sleepy' in this respect; we tried to find the 'sound mirrors' too - precursor to radar - but we couldn't find them. Another time!

  2. Those are out in a field further along the canal. Cant get to them without walking a bit!