In The Rotunda At The Museum Of London
Have you ever wondered what is in the dark space beneath the rotunda?
I remember the first time I visited the Barbican, it was to see the newly-opened Museum of London and, as I walked up from St Paul’s Cathedral, I was astonished by the towering brick rotunda that confronted me. Only by passing across a bridge over the road could you enter this secret enclave, and within I found a hidden garden spiralling down to a large closed door, just as implacable as the blank walls upon the exterior.
Recently I discovered the use of this vast construction is as a mausoleum to store the fourteen thousand human remains in the Museum’s collection, sequestered there in their dark castle in the midst of the roundabout for eternity. Thus it was the fulfilment of more than thirty years of curiosity this week, when I walked over to London Wall and paid a visit to the interior of the rotunda.
My hosts were Rebecca Redfern & Jelena Beklavac, two Bioarchaeologists who are Curators of Human Osteology at the Museum and my particular interest was the more than ten thousand ex-residents of Spitalfields who now rest in the rotunda. “We look after them,” Rebecca reassured me. “We make sure that anyone who wants to see them is a bona fide researcher,” Jelena, explained as we sipped tea and nibbled chocolate biscuits in the subterranean office of the Department of Human Osteology, prior to visiting the rotunda.
Spitalfields was the largest cemetery ever excavated in an urban centre, I learnt, and is thus of enormous scholarly and human significance. All the skeletons were recorded spatially and chronologically when they were removed over three and a half years, at the time of the redevelopment of the Spitalfields Market, to create a database of unrivalled scale – permitting the study of human remains from the eleventh century, when the Priory of St Mary Spital was founded, until the Reformation, when the Priory was closed. As well as residents of the Priory, mass burials were found from times of crisis, such as the Famine, when parish churchyards could not cope.
“It’s incredible, they tell us so much about Medieval London – everyday life, the arrival of new diseases, pollution, diet and immigration,” Rebecca revealed, as if she were conveying direct testimony. “It’s a snapshot of people through time,” she added fondly.
I was struck by the use of the word ‘people’ by Rebecca and the phrase ‘such lovely people’ by Jelena, in describing their charges, yet it became apparent that this work brings an intimate appreciation of the lives of the long-dead. “We see the things they suffered and what’s remarkable is that they survived,” Jelena admitted, “People were super-tough and a lot more tolerant to pain.” Rebecca told me of a child afflicted with congenital syphilis who had survived until the age of eleven, evidencing the quality of care provided by the infirmary of St Mary Spital. Equally, there were those with severe, life-threatening head wounds who had recovered, and others with compound fractures and permanent injuries who carried on their lives in spite of their condition. “There must have been quite a lot of interesting looking people walking around in those days,” Jelena suggested, tactfully.
“If you didn’t do what you needed to do, to get food, heat and shelter, you would die,” Rebecca added, “We’ve lost that resilience. Children in Medieval London were riddled with tuberculosis except most recovered.” The outcome of the catastrophies that came upon the City was the genetic transformation of Londoners and, even today, those who are descended from Black Death survivors possess a greater resistance to AIDS and certain cancers. Medieval Londoners were more resistant to infection than their present day counterparts. “People lived in vile conditions but they became hardy and, if you survived to the age of five, you were pretty robust,” Jelena informed me, “Whereas the contemporary culture of cleanliness has disconnected us from our environment.”
Once I had grasped a notion of what is to be learnt from the people in the rotunda, it was time to pay them a visit. So Rebecca, Jelena and I left our teacups behind to trace a path through the Piranesian labyrinth of concrete tunnels beneath the Museum to reach the mausoleum. As the fluorescent tubes flickered into life, all was still within the rotunda and an expanse of steel shelving was revealed, extending into the distance and stacked neatly with cardboard boxes, each containing the mortal remains of a Londoner. “They’re Spitalfields,” indicated my hosts, gesturing in one direction, before turning and pointing out other aisles of shelves, “That’s the Black Death and they’re Romans.” Outside the traffic rumbled and as we passed fire-doors which gave onto the street, I could hear the rush of trucks close by. The identical cardboard boxes were a literal reminder that we are all equal in death.
Extraordinarily, the rotunda was not built to house the dead but simply as a structure to fill the roundabout, yet I am reliably informed the stable low temperature which prevails is ideal for the storage of bones. Inside, it was a curiously unfinished edifice – with raw concrete and a platform from a crane used in the construction still visible and, elsewhere, the builders had left their graffiti. This was a mysterious incidental space for which no plans survive, but that has found its ideal purpose. Entirely lacking in the gothic chills of a cemetery, the rotunda was peaceful and I had no sense of the silent hordes surrounding us, although I am told contract workers sometimes get nervous when they learn what is stored there.
It is the exterior world which which becomes the enigma when you are inside the rotunda, a world composed of distant traffic noise, curiously transmuted snatches of conversation upon the Barbican broadwalk above and the sound of kitchen equipment in the restaurant overhead. But you may be assured that I sensed no discontent among the thousands of supplanted former-residents of Spitalfields, resting there in peace yet with life whirling all around them.
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