Culture

‘After the Plague’ The Answer Is In The Bones

Dr Jenna Dittmar, a Research Fellow in Osteoarchaeology, now at the University of Aberdeen, has studied hundreds of human remains excavated from three very different burial sites within the historic city centre of Cambridge, where she was based until December 2020.

The excavation of the cemetery of the Hospital of St John the Evangelist in 2010. Courtesy of Cambridge Archaeological Unit.

As part of a team of researchers  at the University of Cambridge  she examined the remains of 314 individuals dating from the 10th to the 15th century and collected evidence of “skeletal trauma” – a barometer for levels of hardship endured in life.

Bones were recovered from across the social spectrum: a parish graveyard for ordinary working people, a charitable “hospital” where the infirm and destitute were interred, and an Augustinian friary that buried wealthy donors alongside clergy.

Dr Jenna Dittmar explained:

“By comparing the skeletal trauma of remains buried in various locations within a town like Cambridge, we can gauge the hazards of daily life experienced by different spheres of medieval society.

“We can see that ordinary working folk had a higher risk of injury compared to the friars and their benefactors or the more sheltered hospital inmates.

“These were people who spent their days working long hours doing heavy manual labour.

“In town, people worked in trades and crafts such as stonemasonry and blacksmithing, or as general labourers.

“Outside town, many spent dawn to dusk doing bone-breaking work in the fields or tending livestock.”

Researchers carefully catalogued the nature of every break and fracture to build a picture of the physical distress visited upon the city’s inhabitants by accident, occupational injury or violence during their daily lives.

Using x-ray analysis, the team found that 44% of working people had bone fractures, compared to 32% of those in the friary and 27% of those buried by the hospital. Fractures were more common in male remains (40%) than female (26%) across all burials.

The team also uncovered noteworthy cases, such as a friar who resembles a modern hit-and-run victim, and bones that hint at lives blighted by violence.

Cambridge was primarily a provincial town of artisans, merchants and farmhands, with a population of 2500-4000 by the mid-13th century, when its famous university still in development with the first stirrings of academia occurring around 1209.

While the working poor may have borne the brunt of physical labour compared to better-off people and those in religious institutions, medieval life was tough in general. In fact, the most extreme injury was found on a friar, identified as such by his burial place and belt buckle.  

“The friar had complete fractures halfway up both his femurs,” said Dr Dittmar. The femur [thigh bone] is the largest bone in the body.

“Whatever caused both bones to break in this way must have been traumatic, and was possibly the cause of death.’

Dr Dittmar points out that today’s clinicians would be familiar with such injuries from those hit by automobiles – it’s the right height. “Our best guess is a cart accident. Perhaps a horse got spooked and he was struck by the wagon.”

“We can see this inequality recorded on the bones of medieval Cambridge residents. However, severe trauma was prevalent across the social spectrum. Life was toughest at the bottom – but life was tough all over.

“While these conclusions were based on a study in Cambridge, previous work suggests that the consequences of inequality was replicated across medieval Britain.”

“I am thrilled to have joined the Department of Archaeology at the University of Aberdeen where Professor Marc Oxenham and I will be exploring how northern communities biologically adapted to significant changes in climate, environment, technology and economy over the last 5-6,000 years.”

The findings are published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

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