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Re-Animating the Nameless Dead : A Face of Medieval Cambridge Revealed

last modified Mar 22, 2017 09:45 AM
As part of the Wellcome Trust-funded project, "After the plague: health and history in medieval Cambridge," archaeologists have revealed a face of medieval Cambridge.

The After the Plague project is focused on the recently excavated large sample of urban poor people from the Hospital of St. John, complemented by comparative samples from other medieval social contexts and other historical periods. The results are not only being analysed statistically, but also biographically.

Meet “Context 958”; a man buried face down in the Hospital cemetery in 13th-century Cambridge. By examining his bones and teeth, Cambridge archaeologists have pieced together the rudiments of his life story, and in collaboration with Dr Chris Rynn of the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification, University of Dundee, have reconstructed his face.

Facial reconstruction of Context 958. Image credit: Chris Rynn

According to the project’s principal investigator, Professor John Robb, Division of Archaeology, University of Cambridge, “Context 958 was probably an inmate of the Hospital of St John, a charitable institution which provided food and a place to live for a dozen or so indigent townspeople -- some of whom were probably ill, some of whom were aged or poor and couldn't live alone.”

The After the Plague project is also about humanising people in the past, getting beyond the scientific facts to see them as individuals with life stories and experiences.

Professor John Robb








“Context 958 was over 40 when he died, and had quite a robust skeleton with a lot of wear and tear from a hard working life. We can't say what job specifically he did, but he was a working class person, perhaps with a specialised trade of some kind. One interesting feature is that he had a diet relatively rich in meat or fish, which may suggest that he was in a trade or job which gave him more access to these foods than a poor person might have normally had. He had fallen on hard times, perhaps through illness, limiting his ability to continue working or through not having a family network to take care of him in his poverty.”

“He has a few unusual features, notably being buried face down which is a small irregularity for medieval burial. But, we are interested in him and in people like him more for ways in which they are not unusual, as they represent a sector of the medieval population which is quite hard to learn about -- ordinary poor people. Most historical records are about well-off people and especially their financial and legal transactions -- the less money and property you had, the less likely anybody was to ever write down anything about you. So skeletons like this are really our chance to learn about how the ordinary poor lived.”

Dr Sarah Inskip of the After the Plague project examines Context 958. Image credit: L. Bonner

Professor Robb added, “The After the Plague project is also about humanising people in the past, getting beyond the scientific facts to see them as individuals with life stories and experiences. This helps us communicate our work to the public, but it also helps us imagine them ourselves as leading complex lives like we do today. That's why putting all the data together into biographies and giving them faces is so important.”

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