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Medieval skeletons show social inequality “written on the bones”


The remains of a man buried in the convent of Augustine, one of three burial sites in Cambridge, England, excavated as part of a study of skeletal trauma as an indicator of past risks.

Nick Safel

Human remains from Cambridge, England, dating back 10 centuries, reveal social inequality engraved on the very bones of the inhabitants.

Researchers studied the skeletons of 314 people who lived between the 10th and 14th centuries, carefully cataloging each break and fracture to link social strata to the risk of skeletal trauma. The results, published Monday in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, contribute to an understanding of the economic and physical difficulties of medieval Europe – and demonstrate once again how much archaeological records can tell us about the daily lives of our ancestors.

Last year, for example, archaeologists analyzed the skeletons of two men believed to have died while fleeing the deadly Vesuvius eruption in Pompeii nearly 2,000 years ago. The younger of the men had compressed spinal discs, leading archaeologists to suggest that he may have been manual labor as a slave.

The bones in the Cambridge study come from three very different burial sites with the remains of residents from across the social spectrum: a parish cemetery for the working poor; a charity hospital where the sick and needy were accommodated; and Augustinian monasticism, which preserves the remains of wealthy donors along with the clergy. Workers buried in the parish cemetery, called “All Saints” by the castle, showed the most injuries, probably as a result of injuries received while working in agriculture and construction. These fields included working with heavy plows pulled by horses or oxen, and dragging stone blocks and wooden beams through the city.

“These were people who spent their long days doing hard manual labor. In the city, people worked in crafts and trades such as stonemasonry and blacksmithing, or as general workers,” said study leader Jenna Dietmar of the Department of Archeology at the University of Cambridge. , said in a statement. “Outside the city, many spent dawn until dusk, breaking bones in the field or looking after cattle.”


Study leader Jenna Dietmar cataloged bone fragments that painted a dramatic picture of physical difficulties in medieval Cambridge.

Video screenshot of the University of Cambridge by Leslie Katz / CNET

By the 13th century, Cambridge was an economically thriving market town and inland river port, the vast majority of whose inhabitants were workers. Using X-ray analysis, Dietmar and other researchers found that 44% of working people who studied had bone fractures, compared with 32% of those buried in the convent and 27% of those buried in the hospital. Fractures are more common in male remains (40%) than in females (26%) in all burials, a finding consistent with past research showing that medieval men were at increased risk of injury compared to medieval women.

But it’s not just full-time workers who have shown signs of significant physical trauma. Although today’s monks spent most of their time in spiritual pursuits and studies, they also took on daily tasks to maintain their monasteries. A man, described in detail in the study, identified as a monk by the belt buckle and the place of his burial, showed complete fractures in the middle of his two femurs, an extreme injury that could have led to his death.

Researchers suspect a cart crash. “Maybe a horse got scared and was hit by a cart,” Dietmar said.

Not all fractures are the result of accidental injury. Researchers have observed skeletal injuries related to violence in about 4% of the population, including women and people from all walks of life.

One brothers showed protective fractures on his arm and signs of blunt trauma to the skull. And a woman buried in the parish yard seemed to bear the marks of domestic violence all her life – several of her ribs were broken, as well as multiple vertebrae, her jaw and her foot.

“She had a lot of fractures, they all healed long before she died,” Dietmar said. “It would be very unusual for all these injuries to happen, for example, as a result of a fall. Today, most broken jaws in women are caused by violence from an intimate partner.”

Taken together, the hundreds of skeletons tell a story of widespread difficulties.

“Life was the hardest underneath,” Dietmar said, “but life was hard everywhere.”

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