BY SIMON CALDWELL
A SENIOR FORENSIC archaeologist has raised concerns about the whereabouts of the body of Cardinal John Henry Newman.
Prof John Hunter of Birmingham University said it was "odd" that no human remains were found during the excavation of the cardinal's grave last month. His concerns have deepened since he tested soil samples from land close to the secluded cemetery in Rednal, Worcestershire, and found that they were not of sufficient acidity to degrade a human body completely.
Prof Hunter, who has excavated graves for 35 years, said that metal would dissolve at a faster rate that human hard tissue, yet brass remains from the coffin were uncovered during the exhumation.
He took samples from a badger's set, 50cm below the surface of the ground and a few hundred metres from the grave where the cardinal's coffin was placed above that of his close friend. Fr Ambrose St John, in August 1890.
He said that the samples proved the local soils to be only mildly acidic and that this meant the cardinal's skeleton should have remained intact.
"If the level of acidity is the same as in the grave then it would be very difficult to explain the absence of bones." said the professor, an internationally recognised expert in his field who has helped to locate mass graves in the Falklands, the Balkans and Iraq. There has to be another explanation to why those remains weren't found. It doesn't take rocket science to suggest that they were either missed or they weren't there in the first place."
He added: "The soil was reasonably acidic but not so much that we would expect hard tissue to go. If the hard tissue would go then the coffin plate would go as well, which it didn't. Even in exceptional soil circumstances certain parts of the body like the teeth would have survived."
Church authorities said shortly after the excavation that they had been told that the dampness and acidity of the soil in the cemetery could have explained why no human remains were found.
Peter Jennings, spokesman for the Birmingham Oratory. said at the time that "in the view of the medical and health professionals in attendance, burial in a wooden coffin in a very damp site makes this kind of total decomposition of the body unsurprising".
But Prof Hunter told BBC Radio 4's Sunday programme that if exceptional soil conditions did exist in the cemetery the coffin and its metal attachments would vanish before bones and teeth.
"It is rather odd that the metal coffin plate and the handles should have survived and the skeleton has not survived," he said.