Shoppers browsing in Birmingham’s landmark Bullring centre may want to take a moment to consider that it might be the scene of a gruesome crime...
It is a centuries-old detective story told in the pages of a book about the archeology of the ancient site revealed before the modern shopping centre was built 15 years ago.
During the excavations of the area to make way for the new Bullring between 1997 and 2001, a macabre find was made.
As archeologist Simon Buteux reveals in his book, Beneath the Bullring , these were the first major archaeological excavations to take place in the city centre. And it was the discovery of the bodies of a middle-aged woman and a young man, aged between 18 and 22, that aroused suspicions of foul play.
While it is not known if they were a mother and son, or a courting couple, archaeologists unearthed “two mysterious burials close to the Park Street frontage” of the Bullring, which is also the home of St Martin’s parish church.
Although 857 skeletons were exhumed by University of Birmingham archaeologists, these two were the only ones not found in the old graveyard.
Instead, they were discovered at a location that would either have been underneath someone’s floor or in their backyard or garden.
Both facts add weight to a theory that they were murdered. University expert Rachel Ives said she found the well-preserved human skeletons were buried in “earth-cut graves, laid out on their backs with their arms folded across their stomachs”.
And although there were no obvious signs of haste in the burials, Mr Buteux said: “When we find burials under the floor or in the backyard, we usually expect foul play.
“Furthermore, the Christian practice is to bury the body aligned east-west, with the head to the east. While one of the corpses was laid out in this way, the other was laid out on a north-south alignment with the head north. Very fishy.”
So why were these two bodies buried outside any known cemetery?
Mr Buteux said: “There are several possibilities, an obvious one being murder and clandestine burial.
“The unusual orientation of one of the burials and the absence of shroud pins suggest these were not formal burials.
“Alternatively, it is not uncommon to deny Christian burial in a churchyard to those who have transgressed Christian morals in some way – adulterers, heretics, suicides and murderers.”
Another theory is that the deaths could have occurred during the infamous Battle of Birmingham during the English Civil War in 1643.
On Easter Monday of that year, nearby Digbeth was turned into a bloody battlefield as Royalist forces led by Prince Rupert clashed with locals supporting the Parliamentarians.
An account at the time stated: “It was about three of the clocke on Munday in the afternoon, he [Prince Rupert] had with neere two thousand horse and foot set against the towne... were twice beaten off with our musqueteers at the entrance of Derrington [Deritend], at which many of their men fell, the townes-men held them in play above an houre, we had not above one hundred and fourtie musquets and having many entrances into the towne they were many too few.”
The defenders were forced to yield and the Royalists went on the rampage.
The account said: “They pursued the rest in fields and lanes, cutting and most barbarously mangling naked men to the number of 15 men, one woman, another being shot, and many hurt, many men sore wounded.
“They pillaged the Towne generally and on Tuesday morning set fire in diverse places of the Towne, and have burnt neere a hundred dwellings.”
Mr Buteux’s book Beneath the Bullring: The archaeology of Life and Death in Early Birmingham is published by Brewin Books.