Imagine you died today and your well-preserved skeleton was dug up by archaeologists in about 800 years.
Let's assume these futuristic detectives could discern enough concrete information from your remains to piece together a rough portrait of your existence, one that would raise as many questions about your identity and lifestyle as it answered.
They may start by assigning you a new name — something typical of the early 21st century — like “Ethan,” “Liam” or “Sophia.”
And that shallow depression on the right side of your head? You know it's the result of the concussion you received playing high school soccer. Twenty-eighth century researchers may assume it's something else: blunt force trauma, the kind that speaks to heightened crime rates inside turn-of-the-millennium metropolises that appear barbaric and inhospitable by futuristic standards.
How do you feel about this sort of extrapolation and insinuation? Does your privacy matter, or does your story, and what it adds to the historical record, matter more? You've been dead for hundreds of years, after all.
Those are exactly the kinds of questions professor John Robb, from Cambridge University’s Division of Archaeology, is wrestling with as he and his team work to cautiously reconstruct the existence of a 13-century man. Their work is part of the Wellcome Trust-funded project "After the plague: health and history in medieval Cambridge."
Robb, the project's principal investigator, told The Washington Post that the challenge his team faces is reconstructing an ancient life in a way that humanizes the subject while remaining as true as possible to the deceased person's authentic experience.
“We have to humanize people we study because we have trouble relating to things that are alien, but we gravitate to familiarity,” Robb said. “The question is whether you have an ethical responsibility with the people you study to avoid knowingly saying things about people we can't know for certain.”
What researchers can know for certain is that the 13th-century man was among some 400 skeletons discovered in 2010 and 2012 underneath the Old Divinity School of St John’s College, one of the largest medieval hospital graveyards in Britain. The burials are from a charitable hospital that stood at the site until 1511 and which provided care to a small number of indigent townspeople, Robb said.
Instead of assigning him a name like “John,” “Thomas,” William” or “Richard” based on the statistical frequency of those monikers in medieval Cambridge, the scientists opted for a more clinical label: “Context 958."
For investigators, well-preserved bones like Context 958's — which were found facedown in a pauper's grave — are a rare window into the world of the urban poor. Before mass literacy and national censuses, the world of the poor often went unrecorded, especially for those people who lacked property or steered clear of the judicial system.
Researchers know Context 958 was between 40 and 70 years old when he died. He had a thick neck and a wide, masculine jaw. At five-foot seven, he was slightly above average in height, with “sturdy bones” that showed markings of muscle attachments and wear. Robb said those attachments suggest that Context 958 spent portions of his life engaged in tough physical labor.
But analysis of the carbon and nitrogen isotopes from Context 958's skeleton have thrown the caricature of the hard-working pauper into question.
“One of the outstanding puzzles of this fellow is that his bone chemistry suggests a rich diet, which would normally be associated with status because the poorer you were, the more you lived on grain and vegetables,” Robb said. “In working life he may have had a job in the food trade or maybe he was a servant and had access and rich diet. We don't want to give him a specific story unless we can be sure it's accurate.”
Despite an unusually varied diet, researchers believe Context 958's life was marked by an accumulation of minor illnesses that may have caused him plenty of discomfort.
His tooth enamel had stopped growing on two occasions during his childhood, suggesting he has survived illness or famine early in his life. By the end of his life, his vertebrae showed obvious signs of physical stress on his spine, as well as a number of fractures and a broken rib, probably from a blow to his body or a fall. Investigators also found evidence of a blunt-force trauma on the back of his head that had healed before he died.
Robb said he suspects people in the 13th century were much more familiar with unalleviated pain than people are today.
“A good example is dental pain, where he had quite bad teeth in some ways, including tooth loss and abscesses,” Robb said, noting his mouth was typical of the period in which he lived. “This was partly a serious health risk because an infected tooth could spread into the rest of your system, but it also meant quite a bit of ordinary pain."
“There also probably would've been a lot more casual violence,” he added. “His skull fractures could've been from fighting or they could be accidental.”
Based on what researchers have learned from Context 958's bones and teeth, it's tempting to fill in the blanks of his biography, especially now that researchers have a decent idea of what he looked like.
In collaboration with researchers from the University of Dundee’s Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification, Robb's team recently made news by recruiting forensic artists to re-create Context 958's face.
Knowing what someone looked like has a way of bringing that person to life, Robb said, but it actually tells you very little about how they lived. If you saw Context 958 in contemporary clothing on the street today, Robb said, you'd have no idea he was born in the Middle Ages.
“If he were dressed appropriately he would look entirely typical,” Robb said. “The facial reconstruction was interesting. Most comments said things like, 'He looks like my neighbor.'"
“We felt like that was a mark of success,” he added.