TWO shocked building workers told of their horror at finding coffins containing child and adult bones as they excavated the grounds of Blackburn Cathedral.
Pipe-layer Karl Grant and digger driver Paul Coulson, both from Padiham, had worked together for 17 years and had never made such a grisly find.
In just a few days, they discovered half a skull, two infant coffins and three adult caskets containing two small child bones and 18 adult bones.
Within minutes of the find, Blackburn Cathedral archaeologist Graham Keevill was on hand to record the discovery and ensure the remains were carefully removed and securely stored for decent reburial in the sacred precincts.
He had already discovered 15 gravestones, including famous Blackburn family names, buried under grass and hardstanding, after being used by the Victorians as pathways when building the new parish church in the early 1800s.
These will now be displayed when the new clergy court and cloister garden are completed by the end of next year.
Mr Grant, 38, who lives in Adamson Street in Padiham, said: “I was just telling Paul last Thursday we had never uncovered anything interesting in 17 years working together.
“The day after, we found half a skull and on Tuesday the five coffins - two for babies and three for adults with bones in.
“It was a bit of a shock but we’re over it now. We have been told there might be more.”
His 46-year-old colleague from Ruskin Avenue, Padiham, said: “I was a bit stunned when uncovered the skull and again when I saw the coffins.
“Karl went down and then we found the bones. It was definitely a shock. I’ve never found anything like this before in years of working on building sites.”
Mr Keevill, who is archaeologist for three other cathedrals including Salisbury, said: “The workmen were fairly shocked but I was not surprised.
“The area they were excavating near the River Blakewater and towards the railway station had been the medieval church’s burial ground.
“In 1858 Queen Victoria decommissioned it after the building of the new Parish Church, now the Cathedral, in the early 1800s. “All the bodies were removed to the new municipal cemetery on Whalley New Road.
“Some coffins and small bones remained which is not unusual.
“There were five coffins, all with lids on, which had been preserved by the damp from the Blakewater, which will now remain.
“As well as the half-skull, there were 18 bones from two adults and two small child bones in the coffins. I immediately recorded the find and carefully removed the human remains which are now under lock and key in a safe place in the Cathedral grounds.
“The grave, or ledger, stones, were hidden and had been turned into a pathway.”
Mr Keevill was appointed as Blackburn Cathedral archaeologist in 2003 for just this sort of eventuality and he added: “I am here for the three weeks of the main excavations. This has been one of my most interesting jobs.”
Cathedral canon Andrew Hindley, in charge of the £33 million development, said: “The bones will be decently reinterred in the ground with a proper church service and the ledger stones displayed in he new clergy court.”
Blackburn MP Jack Straw said: “It is fascinating to see the building of the future of the town centre uncovering so much of its past. I fear the Victorians were a little less careful with human remains than we are today.”
Ray Smith, chairman of Blackburn Local History Society, said: “I am glad that this process is being properly supervised by an archaeologist.
“I am not surprised at the find which are a real glimpse into the town’s past. They could yet find whole skeletons as no-one has ever been sure where burials were made over hundreds of years.”
Blackburn with Darwen Council regeneration boss Maureen Bateson said: “This is developing the new town centre enabling the current generation to learn about our history. I am glad it is all being done carefully and properly.”