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Issue 26 : January 2003

Rail company 'desecrates' St Pancras cemetery

Most of us use a trowel to excavate a skeleton, some use a plasterers' leaf too, while others favour a spoon bent into interesting shapes to get at the awkward bits. Well, at St Pancras in North London they've discovered a new tool for the job:
it's called a JCB.

The archaeological community was horrified to learn that an important cemetery was being machined out after archaeologists had been thrown off site. Archaeologists and English Heritage (EH) inspectors were barred from the Camley Street Cemetery site by Union Railways, despite a 'gentlemen's agreement' that there would be an archaeological excavation.

Simon Thurley, the director of EH, said:
'The archaeologists were excavating these remains with respect. Now, instead, the
company will be sending bulldozers straight through the lot, loading the soil, bones, bits of coffin and name plates into what they call a muck-away truck. It is a total desecration of human remains.' A worker on the site confirmed that: 'We've been digging up skulls, ribs, legs, the lot.'

The cemetery was first used in 1792 for the Catholic community in Camden and aristocrats fleeing the French Revolution. Burial continued until 1854. The Council for British Archaeology (CBA) said that 'this short period of burial activity makes the assemblage even more significant as trends can be analysed over a couple of generations.' Many of the caskets have names on them, increasing the potential for historical research.

The site is part of a new station for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (CTRL), built by Rail Link Engineering for London and Continental Railways. The scheme is governed by its own Act of Parliament, the CTRL Act 1996. This sidesteps normal planning regulations; archaeological intervention is not statutory, only by 'gentlemen's agreement.' The developers now say that time has run out, although archaeologists were allowed only three weeks to excavate about 100 graves out of thousands. The CBA estimates that 'over 2,000 graves' have now been removed without archaeological monitoring.

The outcry, by the Church of England as well as archaeologists, was reported on TV and radio and in the local and national press and after an emergency board meeting the developers agreed provisionally to refrain from using JCBs. An EH statement welcomed the developers' promise to 'reinstate archaeological monitoring and prepare for our approval an archaeological method statement appropriate to the new
exhumation methodology.
' EH said it would 'continue to monitor the archaeological programme.'

The developers insisted that: 'We have all the relevant permissions required to carry out this process and we are fully compliant with all our commitments. The work is being undertaken by a competent specialist contractor.' The change in the exhumation method 'could have serious implications for the cost of the project and for its completion date,' they added.

The CBA, which was at the forefront of the campaign to stop the destruction, said
it was pleased with the result but warned that: '
We need to keep the pressure on to ensure that the planned archaeological work is reinstated.' The wider implications were 'extremely worrying,' however, since proposed changes to make planning legislation more 'business-friendly' would result in blanket consent being granted for other major projects such as airports.

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