FROM 1998 to 2004 the BBC ran a really fascinating television documentary series called Meet the Ancestors.

Some of you might remember it. It was based on the archaeological excavation and scientific analysis of human remains (including clever facial reconstructions).

There is no doubt that bones can tell us an awful lot about people from past generations – their diets, their health, lifestyles and even how they died.

That is particularly true in relation to members of medieval monastic communities.

Some years ago a study was undertaken of the skeletal data from 300 sets of bones found at Bermondsey (Tower Hill) and Merton abbeys.

They revealed a prevalence of a medical condition known as DISH – diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis – triggered by overeating and a rich diet full of saturated fats.

Clearly life in the cloisters was not as austere as some historian apologists would have us believe and I have often wondered about the health and standard of living of the regular canons (they weren’t monks) at Maldon’s Beeleigh Abbey.

Documentary sources indicate that there was an establishment of about ten canons living at Beeleigh at any given time between its foundation in 1180 and eventual closure in 1536.

The visitation (or inspection) records state that they generally behaved themselves and did not overindulge.

That said, my wife and I once excavated a midden (or rubbish dump) at the abbey and it was crammed full of food remains – oyster shells, fish and chicken bones and the butchered disjecta membra of sheep and cattle.

So what were the canons of Beeleigh really like – did some of them resemble that traditional portly image of Robin Hood’s Friar Tuck?

Despite all of the archaeological work that has been undertaken at the abbey, very few human remains have ever been discovered, but they must be out there somewhere.

The canons’ graveyard should be to the east of the surviving buildings (now a lawn) but it has not, as yet, been located.

What is sure, however, is that human bones have turned up on the site in the past.

In 1864 the then secretary of the Essex Archaeological Society, Reverend Frederick Spurrell, mentioned that “skulls and other bones” had been revealed during gravel extraction.

He then went on to state that “within the last twenty years” (sometime between 1844 and 1864) he had seen “a large vault containing more than twenty human skeletons not lying in order, but in all confusion”.

How tantalising, but how really frustrating.

In more recent times, the author Henry Thorold recounts in his book The Ruined Abbeys of England, Wales and Scotland (Collins 1993) a story told to him by the late Christina Foyle (1911-1999).

She apparently said that her father, William Foyle (1885-1963), had the large pond dug that is still there today.

In so doing “the site was found to be full of bones”, which were, she revealed, “carefully packed for removal by the dustmen”.

Thankfully the dustmen refused to take them, but we don’t know what became of what would have been important human evidence of the abbey’s past.

We seem to be frustrated at every turn, but there are two surviving clues.

Among my ever-growing Maldon archive, I have a photograph of a skeleton said to have been discovered “in the cloister in 1912”.

This might well have been when the first secular kitchen extension was built by the architect Basil Ionides for the then resident, Captain Grantham.

It isn’t easy to make out the detail from the grainy, faded image.

The skull looks damaged, parts of the pelvis are missing, as are the feet, but a doctor friend of mine is fairly convinced it is male.

That would certainly make sense, but the location, “in the cloister” and (if it was excavated when the kitchen was built) not far from the Chapter House, makes it potentially an abbot.

Again, we don’t know what happened to the skeleton, but at least someone had the foresight to take that photo.

Along the outside north wall of the Chapter House are two stone coffins. I once had a sneaky peek inside one of them and, guess what, it contains disarticulated human bones.

I particularly noticed what looked like a fragment of cranium.

As far as I know there has never been a detailed study of what is potentially all that survives of the canons of Beeleigh.

Wouldn’t it be great if those bones were subjected to expert analysis so that, at long last, we could ‘Meet Beeleigh’s Ancestors’.