‘Bone biographies’ reveal life and times of medieval England’s common people

January 16, 2024

A series of “bone biographies” created by a major research project tell the stories of medieval Cambridge residents as recorded on their skeletons, illuminating everyday lives during the era of Black Death and its aftermath. The latest techniques were used to investigate diets, DNA, activities, and bodily traumas of townsfolk, scholars, friars and merchants. This database of medieval life histories has already led to findings on diseases from cancer to herpes. The full “osteobiographies” are available on a new website launched by the After the Plague project at Cambridge University’s Department of Archaeology. The project used a statistical analysis of likely names drawn from written records of the period to give pseudonyms to the people studied.

A series of “bone biographies” created by a major research project tell the stories of medieval Cambridge residents as recorded on their skeletons, illuminating everyday lives during the era of Black Death and its aftermath.

University of Cambridge archaeologists analysed close to 500 skeletal remains excavated from burial grounds across the city, dating between the 11th and 15th centuries. Samples came from a range of digs dating back to the 1970s. 

The latest techniques were used to investigate diets, DNA, activities, and bodily traumas of townsfolk, scholars, friars and merchants. This database of medieval life histories has already led to findings on diseases from cancer to herpes.

Researchers have now focused on sixteen of the most revealing remains that are representative of various “social types”, with bones offering up lost details of those who jostled in Cambridge’s narrow streets many centuries ago.  

The full “osteobiographies” are available on a new website launched by the After the Plague project at Cambridge University’s Department of Archaeology.

The project involved specialists in archaeology, osteology, genetics, biochemistry and medicine, and the results have been illustrated by artist Mark Gridley.

“An osteobiography uses all available evidence to reconstruct an ancient person’s life,” said lead researcher Prof John Robb.

“Our team used techniques familiar from studies such as Richard III’s skeleton, but this time to reveal details of unknown lives – people we would never learn about in any other way.”

“The importance of using osteobiography on ordinary folk rather than elites, who are documented in historical sources, is that they represent the majority of the population but are those that we know least about,” said After the Plague researcher and osteoarchaeologist Dr Sarah Inskip.  

The project used a statistical analysis of likely names drawn from written records of the period to give pseudonyms to the people studied. “As our work progressed, we stopped seeing the remains as faceless skeletons,” Robb said.

The source of this news is from University of Cambridge

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