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  • Susan Elaine Jones

No tea, no biscuits. Just the taste of bone.

Visiting one of only two charnel chapels (or ossuaries) left in the country left a bitter taste in my mouth. Though it was possibly more sour than bitter. Or tangy. Very musty certainly. Once tasted, never forgotten. Unfortunately, though the internet mentions that admission includes tea and biscuits (how very British), on our visit they didn't seem to be offered to take the taste away. See portfolio here!

So to say that Rothwell Charnel House has an atmosphere would be a significant understatement. It is an atmosphere that exudes into your clothes, and adds a certain je-ne-c'est-quoi to your next meal, but whatever that quoi is, it's also a little gritty.

Rothwell was still wonderful. And it's opening hours add to the feeling of visiting a Charnel house being a special opportunity. (It is open on the second Sunday of the month, 2:30pm-4:30pm. Probably. But their webpage notes that it is worth checking that a steward will be available, just in case.)

I had hoped that viewing their collection of 2,500 skulls would help me refine my abilities in spotting individual differences in skull morphology - eyebrow ridges, persistent sutures, zygomatic arches, nose shape and so on.

Instead I found that I was transfixed by the many different ways skulls collapse, return to dust, and find ways to become airborne in a carefully controlled environment. Also everything on the floor feels like bone crumbs, that stick to your jeans when you're the type of ill person that has to sit or kneel down a lot. But since the sandstone walls are also crumbling, it is hard to be sure.

Rothwell Charnel Chapel combination picture of skulls

Fortunately, my wonderful husband came along and helped me immensely. Not just in the driving and dragging me out when I could no longer make sentences (or sense), so obviously needed to return to a sofa, but also in his wonderful work for an hour as "intelligent light stand" - adding beautiful flash to my many, many photos.

Even with the photos, and the stories told by the steward, and reading the research by the University of Sheffield, and the time I took to just absorb the atmosphere (figuratively and literally), I just don't know how to synthesize the experience of visiting my first, English ossuary. It is touching and moving and disturbing and thought provoking; but mostly it was captivating.

What I really want is to be able to find some way to photograph this so that the damp, musty smell comes through. My first attempt to encapsulate this as a composite image of 32 of the skulls, where the sheer number comes thought, but hints of each skulls individual shape and breakages and merging into the sandy walls and gritty shelves can be seen.

32 skulls - composite image of skulls in the Rothwell Ossuary

But really, I can only recommend that everyone goes and visits. Especially as, if my maths is correct, in all likelihood, one of my ancestors' skulls (and probably yours) is sitting in that chapel. And it is always good to go and do a family visit.

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