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St Bernard’s Hospital Skeletons: A Mystery to be Solved

Chris Gomez

Research into 251, 600+ year old skeletons found in 2014 is beginning to scratch the surface of our knowledge of the little-known post-Medieval period in Gibraltar.

In 2014 during excavations of the old St. Bernard’s Hospital (Gibraltar), which was being converted into a middle school, 251 predominantly male skeletons were discovered.

They date back to the Spanish occupation of Gibraltar, and slowly but surely more intriguing information continues to surface on this relatively unknown era of the Rock’s post-Medieval history.

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Reach-Alcance spoke with Prof Geraldine Finlayson of the Gibraltar National Museum, who directed the archaeological excavation team with Stewart Finlayson (also of the Gibraltar National Museum, who happens to be her son), to find out what we have learned so far.

“In this burial ground there was a predominance of young males ranging from late adolescent to 40 years old.”

“This fits in very well with the excavation site which was originally known as ‘El Hospital de Nuestra Señora de los Desamparados’ (The Hospital for those with no one to turn to); a name given to military and naval hospitals which would have been populated with mercenaries or sea faring men.”

This hospital was originally founded by local philanthropist and wealthy merchant Juan Mateos and when his own health began to fade, it continued to be run by Los Padres de Juan de Dios, later the Order of San Juan de Dios.

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From these bones the research team found further evidence to suggest that these bodies could have been military men, with the detection of syphilis in at least two skeletons, a disease which sailors were vulnerable to, and even battle wounds.

“One of these individuals seemed to have survived a blade wound, possibly from a sword, to his head. This is the kind of injury expected in sailors or soldiers.”

Through an analysis of the bones, it has also been confirmed that these individuals had a marine-based diet, said Prof Finlayson “although this would seem an obvious diet in the Mediterranean, it was a supposition which we have now been able to prove scientifically.”

This was discovered through carbon dating, where isotopes (degrading atoms whose atomic mass has slightly changed) of nitrogen in the bones were analysed against existing scientific references to show that they had a diet rich in sea food.

Through various scientific processes, the team hopes to identify the nationalities or places of origin of these skeletons; “the water you drink has a chemical signature which is absorbed by your bones”, explains Prof. Finlayson “we’re looking at these bones to see where these people originated from, although the results are not in yet.”

Unusual Burial Practises

Perhaps one of the biggest mysteries of this burial site is the way in which the bodies were buried.

“We found nails, which suggests that some of the bodies were once inside a coffins, in keeping with Catholic tradition.” However, she also explained; “There were individuals found in groups that hadn’t been laid out, and some were even facing down… For lack of a better word, they seem to have been ‘dumped’.”

So what does this tell us?

Geraldine explained: “This is still being looked at, but it suggests that at one point there may have been some kind of an epidemic with a large number of deaths … We don’t know if they were aware of contagious diseases at the time, but it could well be that they didn’t want to touch them very much.”

The research team are still investigating the bones to see if disease was involved.

Although it was not part of the Christian ritual to bury belongings with bodies, the team found a cross, a Christogram with the letters “JHS” (Jesus Hominum Salvator) and ceramics dating to the 16th and 17th centuries.

Prof Finlayson concluded by saying: “We really don’t know much about Spanish occupied Gibraltar, it was a short period of our history and we tend to focus on the Moorish and British periods, so it’s very interesting to find pieces of history from this little known era.”

St Bernard's Hospital - Prior Park School

This large-scale research project is a joint venture of the universities of Cambridge, Toronto and Gibraltar, the Gibraltar National Museum, under the guidance of local historian of Dr. Samuel Benady and archaeologist Dr. Kevin Lane, local and international volunteers, and a myriad of historians and archaeological specialists including members of the Villamartin Museum in Cadiz.

While they complete their laborious scientific work we can but wonder who these people were? Where did they come from? Were they local or from abroad? Sailors or soldiers who died in battle; if so who were they fighting and when? Or did they die from disease? There is nothing more troubling to the human spirit than not knowing; Prof Finlayson and her team will soon provide the answers.

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