SKELETONS which were buried in a shallow grave in a broom cupboard at the bottom of a bell tower have been discovered during building work at a rural county church.

St Tysilio's Church in Sellack, near Ross-on-Wye, is updating the back of the church and installing a kitchen area, a meeting room, and a toilet.

And when work started by builders, C J Bayliss, they discovered a family of what they think are plague victims, a large sealed crypt (thought to contain eight bodies) and even a skeleton which was built into the church tower.

Site foreman Colin Morgan explained how they found six or seven skeletons in what was previously a broom cupboard and which is being made into a toilet. He said: "Right under the flagstones we found what appeared to be an infant's skull. It was only about two inches under the ground."

Church warden, Patrick Darling, added: "They were buried in wool sacks, which dates them to around 1600 or earlier, as that is when they started using coffins."

Archaeologists are on site every time the builders need to dig below the surface and they have catalogued the bones.

The skeletons seem to be of young people and, as the grave was not marked, are likely to have been of a middle ranking social class; not buried in the churchyard nor quite in the church.

Mr Darling said they then also discovered that one of the skeletons had been built into the tower, presumably not to disturb their resting place, while another skeleton had its legs cut off to make way for the tower.

He said: "The bodies [built in the tower] must certainly pre-date 1420 when the tower was built and they may have been there for a while. When you think about it, these people were alive before Henry VIII, before the Battle of Agincourt. It is a tremendous link with history."

The bones will be interred in the church graveyard.

Mr Morgan said about the discovery: "You get used to it. It is part of our job. You treat them with as much respect as you can."

And they have had to change some of their plans after they discovered the domed top of a large crypt, which nobody in the parish realised was there, underneath the Pengethley Chapel.

Mr Darling said they have found reference to eight burials on memorials in the church, which could refer to bodies inside the crypt.

The crypt will not be opened due to concerns that it may contain lead lined coffins, which means there could be spores of anthrax inside.

Outside the church tower in a very shallow grave they found a mother, father and child, which they think could be plague victims. The shallow graves suggests the burial was done in a rush and as close to the church as possible. Mr Darling added: "It is quite possible not many people were left then to bury the dead."

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