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London - It is Britain’s largest and best-preserved collection of human bones. But the ossuary at St Leonard’s Church in Hythe, Kent, is missing some of its exhibits after 21 skulls were stolen.

The thieves broke in between Sunday afternoon and Monday morning. St Leonard’s ossuary has more than 1,000 skulls and bones arranged on shelves in four arched bays, as well as a single large stack.

They are thought to be the remains of Hythe residents who were buried in the churchyard but then dug up in the 13th century. The bones have been studied using the latest forensic techniques to provide information about life – and death – some 800 years ago.

The Rev Andrew Sweeney, priest-in-charge at St Leonard’s, said: ‘Each skull represents the mortal remains of a human being who deserves to rest in peace. This crime is shocking and unsettling.’

Inspector Maxine Harris of Kent Police said: ‘We would like to hear from anyone who saw anything suspicious or has seen these skulls offered for sale.’