Scientists Reconstruct the Face of a Cambridge Man Who Died 700 Years Ago Using His Skull

Though we know much about the kings, queens, and famous personalities throughout history, we know very little about the everyday working class people. The stories of the royalty and aristocracy would only give us an account of minor part of the population. However, they tell nothing about what the life of ordinary people, who constitute the majority of the population, was like back then. Thanks to archaeology, archaeologists and historians have been finding clues to such things and piece them to get an idea. Recently, researchers have made some very interesting progress in that direction as they reconstruct the face of a Cambridge man who died 700 years ago using his skull. This shows us what an average man looked like and how his life was then.

The skeletal remains of a 13th-century man named Context 958 were found among 400 other skeletons in a mass graveyard underneath the Old Divinity School of St John’s College, Britain, that were excavated between 2010 and 2012.

Skeletons Under Old Divinity School of St John's College
Image Source: wikimedia, cam

The skeletons excavated from the burial site belong to the period between 13th and 15th century. These burials were done by the Hospital of St John the Evangelist. The hospital stood opposite the graveyard until 1511 and was an Augustinian charitable institute dedicated to providing food and caring for the poor. The hospital’s burial ground was first instituted around 1195 by the townspeople of Cambridge for charitable purposes, and it was originally a small building on a patch of waste land. It was later developed with the support from the church to become a noted hospital.

Context 958 had a robust skeleton, possibly because of a hard working life. He was probably an inmate at the Hospital of St John and 40 years old at the time of his death. 

Context 958’s Skeleton
Image Source: C. Cessford

Researchers believe that context 958 lived on a relatively rich diet of meat and fish, which meant that he could have worked in a trade or had a job that gave him access to these foods, which are otherwise difficult for the poor to acquire. He probably also had a hard working life which would explain the quite a robust skeleton he had, but with a lot of wear and tear. Though the researchers are unsure as to what trade exactly he was working in, they are sure that he belonged to the working class, and it was a specialized trade.

The life of Context 958 was filled with misfortune, and his tooth enamel suggests that he had suffered periods of sickness or famine early on. 

Facial Reconstruction of Context 958 & Dr Sarah Inskip Examining the Skull
Image Source: Dr. Chris Rynn (University of Dundee), Laure Bonner

Researchers believe that Context 958 had to face difficult times, perhaps due to an illness, which meant that he couldn’t work enough to keep himself well or that he did not have a family or relations who would tend to him during that time. It was also found that his tooth enamel stopped growing twice during his childhood, which meant that he suffered either sickness or famine during those times. There is also evidence of blunt trauma on the back of his head which must have healed before his death. An interesting or unusual feature about his burial is that he was buried face down which was not normal during the medieval period.

The excavations were part of a project called After the Plague: Health and History in Medieval Cambridge which focuses on the urban poor and understanding their day-to-day lives.

The Skull and Face of Context 958
Image Source: cam, Dr. Chris Rynn (University of Dundee)

According to Professor John Robb, Division of Archaeology, University of Cambridge, most of the historical records are about rich people and their financial and legal transactions, which meant those with no money or property don’t get mentioned as much as the rich. That makes the skeletons a treasure in terms of a chance to understand ordinary life. Humanizing them and going “beyond scientific facts to see them as individuals with life stories and experiences” helps the researchers communicate their work to the public. He believes this is why putting those stories together and “giving them faces is important.”

[sources: University of Cambridge]

Also see: 10 Well-Preserved Fossils of Extinct Creatures That You Should Be Glad Are Not Alive.

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