The stories behind the skeletons

Osteoarchaeologist Hayley Forsyth with some skeletons to be found at the Eastbourne Ancestors exhibition.
Osteoarchaeologist Hayley Forsyth with some skeletons to be found at the Eastbourne Ancestors exhibition.

Everybody has a story to tell – the young children and the retired pensioners, the corporate accountants and the stay-at-home parents, the class clown and the shy wallflower, the living and the dead.

Now, a project in Eastbourne is aiming to give a voice to and tell the tales of those who passed away thousands of years ago, simply from looking at their bones.

Eastbourne Ancestors, a scheme funded by the Heritage Lottery Project, has more than 300 skeletons in its closet and the volunteers have taken it upon themselves to find out all the stories behind the skeletons.

Formed in the spring of 2012, Eastbourne Ancestors set about retrieving the hundreds of human skeletons in storage, ready to start re-examining and analysing them in an attempt to discover where the person came from, their health, their social status and even their diet.

Through modern technology and the wonders of science, the project has been able to put some flesh on the bones of people dating back to the Anglo-Saxon era around 1,500 years ago and the Bronze Age more than 4,000 years ago - the first time such an extensive study has taken place on one collection of skeletons.

The work has been ongoing for more than a year and now, they are ready to display their fascinating findings at an exhibition in The Pavilion beginning February 1.

The exhibition will feature human skeletal remains, genuine historical artefacts and even a few facial reconstructions that will allow people to literally look into the eyes of their ancestors.

Heritage officer at Eastbourne Borough Council, Jo Seaman, said, “This is a project that has come about over the last couple of years because my colleague and I were looking down at the bones we had in storage and we weren’t happy about the way they’d been looked after in the past.

“We wanted to learn something about every single one of those individuals in our collection and so we applied to the Heritage Lottery Fund for some money to actually do the analysis and also to get lots of local volunteers involved.

“What we’ve been doing over the past year is going over the collections individually and analysing the bones, seeing what we can find out about the bones themselves, such as stature, sex, height and maybe some evidence of damage or injury from the past.

“Then we went a step further and had a lot of the bones scientifically analysed, which told us the date of the bones and gives us an accurate date of when the were buried.

“Finally, we’ve had somebody create faces of some of these people, which is the closest we can get to meeting our ancestors, so that’s absolutely incredible and a vital part of this process.”

One skeleton at the exhibition that will undoubtedly cause a ripple of interest is that of the ‘Beachy Head Lady’ – a skeleton with African ancestry dating back to the roman period, around AD245, that was found at the infamous beauty spot in 1953 but whose circumstances remain a complete mystery.

Mr Seaman added, “It’s going to be an amazing exhibition, showing you not only the reconstructions, but also some of the actual skeletons. It will be a great, hands-on exhibition as well; there will be artefacts that were buried with these people that also tell us things about the person that sometimes bones can’t, such as culture and clothes they wore in everyday life.

“This whole project is a way of understanding our ancestors, our heritage, getting to know them better and realising these people aren’t all that different from ourselves.”

The exhibition will run until November 16. For info visit