Two complete skeletons and a host of other bones were found when engineers working for Northern Gas Networks dug up a gas pipe in the Market Place.
The find brought vital gas mains replacement work to a standstill as a “time team” of archaeologists conducted a full-scale study in the trench outside St Nicholas’ Church.
Now, a report into the dig by TWM Archaeology has shed some light on the bones, pottery, glass and metalwork found at the site.
The report describes the two in situ burials immediately to the east of St Nicholas Church as an “important discovery”.
Archaeologist Jonathan McKelvey said it looked like the site had once been an official burial site inside the church and was probably from the 18th century.
“The two skeletons were of a man above the age of 22 and a toddler. The fact they were buried inside the church suggests they would have come from quite a wealthy family. There were some signs of dental decay due to diet and poor hygiene but nothing to say why they died. Radio-carbon dating indicates that the skeletons were a few hundred years old, but do not date back as far as the medieval period when the original church was built.
“The other bones were probably disturbed when the original gas pipe was laid about 40 years ago and range in age from babies to people over 60, probably from the same era.”
Durham’s St Nicholas’ Church dates back 700 years, but the eastern end, which would originally have housed the graves, was demolished in 1841 to improve access to the Market Place.
The original medieval building was eventually demolished altogether and replaced with the current church in 1858.
Barry Watson, operations manager for United Utilities, who oversaw the work, said engineers knew from the off that they may uncover something interesting.
“The last time we worked in Durham Market place we uncovered a body which dated back even further than these. It makes our work harder but it gives a fascinating insight into the history of our region,“ he said.
United Utilities and Northern Gas Networks worked in Durham City Centre for four months at the beginning of 2008 to replace 700m of old gas pipe in the interests of safe and reliable supplies.
Mr McKelvey said the bodies would now be reburied in consecrated ground in consultation with officials at St Nicholas’ Church.
Other finds included five partial skulls, bones, part of clay pipe manufactured in Gateshead, a coffin handle, pieces of pottery and glass.