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Facial reconstruction of Context 958. Photo: University of Cambridge

The growth of forensic science and art has allowed a look into the faces of kings, from the famous Shakespearean villain Richard III, to the Scottish hero Robert the Bruce, to the famed boy-pharaoh Tutankhamun.

But what about the rabble? What about the commoners buried in small plots without pomp, and forgotten not long after they left this mortal coil?

A new project in Cambridge called “After the Plague” aims to understand the plight of the common man and woman in and around the time the Black Death hit England in 1348.

The four-year project’s first big unveil is a man known now as “Context 958” – who was buried face-down in the Hospital of St. John the Evangelist churchyard in the 13th century.

The Cambridge team has started to reconstruct what his life may have been like, based on forensic clues that went with him to his grave some 800 years ago.

“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,” said John Robb, a Cambridge archaeologist who is the principal investigator on the Plague project. “So skeletons like this are really our change to learn about how the ordinary poor lived.”

Context 958, buried among roughly 400 of his contemporaries, has a tale to tell, deep within what’s left of his bones. Using isotopes, DNA, and other chemical analysis, the milestones start to fall into place.

He was a man who had died in his 40s. His joints showed a hard, working-class life – but the bones were also robust, meaning he had been a healthy and active person in his prime, the scientists describe. His diet was relatively rich in protein from meat or fish, meaning his job may have allowed him access to foods of the kind.

But there were dark threads to his life’s narrative. His tooth enamel stopped growing on two occasions when he was a boy, meaning he probable had suffered serious illness or famine from a young age. A serious head wound from blunt force trauma on the back of his skull had healed before he died, but may have caused severe pain and problems.

The plot where he had been buried, face down, also shows a bit about his end. He was likely an inmate of the Hospital of St. John, a charitable institution in Cambridge which cared for a dozen people at a time who were indigent from illness, age, or poverty.

The reconstruction of Context’s face was completed by Chris Rynn, of the University of Dundee, using the skeletal remains.

The face and the story were first unveiled recently at the Cambridge Science Festival.

Context 958 is one of about 400 people buried in the graveyard, interments spanning from the 13th to 15th century – including some of the worst of the plague years. After the Plague is expected to continue the work of telling the story of a devastating pandemic over the next four years, through 2021.

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

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