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This medieval skeleton died with its boots on

Archaeologists digging out a place along the Thames Tideway Tunnel – a massive pipeline named London's "super drain" – has…

Archaeologists digging out a place along the Thames Tideway Tunnel – a massive pipeline named London’s “super drain” – has unveiled a medieval man’s skeleton that literally died with their boots on.

“It’s extremely rare to find some boots from the late 15th century, still less a skeleton still wearing them,” says Beth Richardson from the Museum of London Archeology (MOLA). “And these are very unusual boots for period-thigh boots, with the tops down, they would have been expensive, and how this man came to owning them is a mystery. Was they secondhand? Do they stole them?” [1

9659003] Archaeologists and specialists from the Museum of London Archeology regain a 500 year old skeleton under the Thames Tideway Tunnel excavations.

Unearthing skeletons under major construction projects are not uncommon in London, for centuries the land has been reused numerous times and many burial sites have been overlooked and forgotten. (Learn more about London’s rich history.) But archeologists immediately noticed that this skeleton was different.

From the top, the right arm over the head, the left arm bent on itself – suggests that the man was not. It is not deliberately buried. It is also unlikely that he would have been rested in leather boots, which were expensive and highly valued.

In the light of these clues, archaeologists believe that the man died by mistake and his body was never recovered, even though the cause of death is unclear. Maybe he fell in the river and could not swim. Or maybe he was caught in the tide and drowned.

Sailor, fisherman or “mudlarker”?

Five hundred years ago, this stretch of the Thames – two miles or so downstream from the Tower of London – was a lively shipping quay with quays and warehouses, workshops and taverns. The river was flanked by the Bermondsey wall, a medieval farm that was about fifteen meters high built to protect the estuary’s property from tidal crashes.

Experts dated man’s leather boots to the late 1500s or early 1500s.

In view of the district, the booted man could have been a sailor or a fisherman, an opportunity enhanced by physical clues. Spoken traces in his teeth may have been caused by repeating a rope several times. Or maybe he was a “mudlarker”, a snake term for those who scavenge along the Thames muddy shore at low tide. The weather-like thighs of men would have been ideal for such work.

“We know he was very powerful,” says Niamh Carty, an osteologist or skeletal specialist at MOLA. “The muscular motions on his chest and shoulders are very noticeable. The muscles were built by doing very heavy and repetitive work for a long time.”

It was work that took a physical toll. Although only the beginning of the 1930s, the man stood up from osteoarthritis, and the vertebrae in the back had already begun to melt as a result of bending and lifting years. Damage to his left hip suggests he went with a limp and his nose had broken at least once. It is obvious about blunt-headed stomach ache that had healed before he died.

“He did not have a quiet life,” says Carty. “In the past thirties were middle-aged then, yet his biological age was older.”

The investigation continues. Isotopic analysis will shed light on where the man grew up, whether he was an immigrant or a native Londoner, and what kind of diet he had.

“His family never had any answers or a grave,” says Carty. “What we do is a memorandum. We let his story finally be told.”

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