Facial reconstruction of the remains of a 13th-century male individual found during excavations of the Old Divinity School of St John’s College, Cambridge, England, conducted between 2010-2012 revealed the looks of an ordinary poor man buried at the Medieval cemetery.
The skeleton was found among some 400 burials uncovered during excavations of one of the largest medieval hospital graveyards in Britain. The individuals, which mostly date from a period spanning the 13th to 15th centuries, were buried at the Hospital of St John the Evangelist which stood opposite the graveyard until 1511, and from which the College takes its name. The hospital was an Augustinian charitable establishment in Cambridge dedicated to providing care to members of the public.
According to archaeologists the individual, documented as 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. In collaboration with Dr Chris Rynn from the University of Dundee’s Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification, Professor John Robb from the University’s Division of Archaeology, and Cambridge colleagues have reconstructed the man’s face and pieced together the rudiments of his life story by analysing his bones and teeth.
According to the researchers the man has a few unusual features, notably being buried face down which is a small irregularity for medieval burial. He was over 40 when he died, and had quite a robust skeleton with a lot of wear and tear from a hard working life. 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. His tooth enamel had stopped growing on two occasions during his youth, suggesting he had suffered bouts of sickness or famine early on. Archaeologists also found evidence of a blunt-force trauma on the back of his skull that had healed over prior to his death.
(after C. Cessford, Chris Rynn & University of Dundee)