Saturday, 3 October 2009

Ossuary

The other day on the radio a lady mentioned the 'bones of Hythe'. She was referring to the ossuary of Hythe Church, an ossuary being a store of bones. You might think this a morbid topic, one that I really could do with avoiding given my recent experiences. But the ossuary at Hythe doesn't carry suggestions of morbidity for me.

Perhaps it's the word 'ossuary'. An elegant, stately word. Containing a pile of bones within such a latinate construction lends them a certain grace.

I visited the ossuary a few years ago on a sunny summer's day. The church is a short climb up from Hythe's High Street. A small sign directs you to the rear of the church and through a small door. The sharp contrast between the sunlight and the dark of the interior meant it took a couple of seconds for my eyes to adjust. I was surprised to find myself looking right into a bank of skulls and bones.

It reached about as high as my head, the height exaggerated somewhat as the bank stood on a small stone dais. It was shaped like a granite kerb corner, with one long face turning through 90 degrees into a shorter end face; it sloped slightly back on itself. Its interlocking construction was that of a dry stone wall, and it must have been put together with some skill having remained integral for hundreds of years. The skulls had been placed evenly throughout the structure, but without a formulaic regularity.

What was peculiar about the experience was there was nothing sinister or disturbing about it. On the contrary, whilst hardly having an everyday, unremarkable character, the bones had a comfortable feeling about them. Many generations of eyes had taken them in and worn them smooth. They seemed settled, almost familiar, unthreatening as milk.

It's unclear how the ossuary came into being. One story has it that it was the product of an Anglo Saxon battle. But a more likely explanation is that it was created when the church was extended over the graveyard. The ecclesiastical authorities required that all the bones be removed and put somewhere safe. Hence the ossuary. A very peculiar and little-known place.

7 comments:

Bunny Smedley said...

The phrase 'unthreatening as milk' - perfect.

worm said...

Looks like your spell on the wards has done nothing to affect the quality of your writing! a great piece that I could imagine reading in a really excellent old travel guide (I've just got my hands on an old copy of the Shell Country Alphabet which is full of baroque diversions like this ossuary)

Never seen anything like that myself - the pictures of places in Sicily with piles and piles of skulls and mummies always freaked me out a fair bit, but-in that old-fashioned British way-your church in Hythe sounds temperate and unthreatening.

Hythe and Rye are two places I'd love to visit (with a detour to Dungeness in between too)

welcome back!

Gadjo Dilo said...

I recently heard a fascinating documentary on Radio 4 about "skull feeders" in Hindu culture: people who live in an ossuary and feed the skulls. The CofE really should have a go at this.

Bunny, unless you've got a lactose intolerance :-)

Gadjo Dilo said...

p.s. great that you're at large again. I hope the health continues to improve.

Brit said...

Bones are nice and clean and dry, mind. A big pile of human livers, for example, wouldn't be so pleasing.

Gaw said...

Thanks Bunny. V kind.

Worm, Anglicanism does seem to have this uncanny ability to make everything fairly nice. It's a wonderful thing. Hythe is a lovely little town with a great promenade. Like a lot of these reasonably well-to-do, rather old-fashioned provincial towns it retains a drapers. I'd go as far to say that the survival of the draper is the chief indicator of small town authenticity.

Gadjo: No room for the humourous here - skulls and thigh bones only I'm afraid (boom, boom).

Brit: Or, indeed, last for about 1400 years.

Brit said...

You could pickle them. Keep em good and slimy.