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New Poem: 'sexing the bones'

Here is my poem from A Hut A Byens: an anthology to honour the 110 people interred in ossuary boxes at St. Aidan's in Bamburgh, Northumberland. The bodies were discovered in a 1,400-year-old burial site now dubbed 'The Bowl Hole'.

I became interested in the pursuit of gendering bones in mortuary archaeology and what value, if any, can be gained by retrospectively assigning gender as a means of classification. The need to impose order and hierarchy upon bodies that have reached a state with little use for labels such as man/woman/girl/boy seemed to offer limited (and perhaps limiting) knowledge, reducing rather than expanding our understandings about lived experiences from a broader, more inclusive range of society.

In my poem, I wanted to honour non-binary/fluid/trans folk who have (despite recent accusations that non-conforming is a new 'fashion' or a 'fad') been present across the world for generations. For instance, 5,000 years ago a skeleton classed as a 'biological male' (enormous scare quotes) was buried in a Prague suburb with the head facing the East, counter to the tradition of male burials facing the West. In further 'positioning' there were no weapons to accompany. Instead, this body shared its final resting place with domestic egg-shaped vessels, the kind that typically accompanied female burials. Pink News covered this discovery back in 2011 and it stayed with me ever since.

Old English in my poem: A key Burgware = Citizens. "Burg" means borough or walled town and "-ware" means inhabitants of e.g. Cantware; Kentish folk. Umbor = Infant. Wynsum = Pleasant/Charming. From wyn; joy. Dēor-Mōd = Courageous, worthy. From Dēore; dear, precious and Mōd; courage, mood, mind.

As well as producing linguistic contractions in the Old English style known as keenings (also a form of sorrowful wailing for the dead) I became very interested, from a non-binary perspective, in the connection between the Old English 'code words' assigned to each body in the Bamburgh ossuary.

Binary, coded genders are assigned in osteology by way of measuring the pelvis. Many of the 110 skeletons discovered in the Bowl Hole remain 'indeterminately classified'. Though I don't suggest any of these folks and children were non-gender conforming - and I really, really want to reiterate that - the very possibility that any of the 110 could be non-gender-conforming spoke very clearly and led me to this new poem.

I generally try not to republish printed materials online but as the anthology is available free of charge, this felt like a suitable taster! If you'd like to read more, there are copies at St Aidan's Church in Bamburgh.



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