The face of a Cambridge man who died more than 700 years ago has been reassembled as part of a project to gain insights into the anonymous poor of the medieval city. The 13th-century man, known as Context 958 by researchers, was among hundreds whose debris were found in a graveyard under what is now the Old Divinity School of St John’s College. The cemetery was attached to an independent charitable foundation and hospital for poor and infirm residents between 1200 and 1500 and is one of the largest medieval hospital cemeteries in Britain.
Archaeologists and other specialists are searching for new information on the poor who lived in the city, about whom there is little documentary evidence. “We really don’t know much about ordinary poor medieval people and their lives. Most work has focused either on celebrity bodies such as Richard III or upper middle classes. Studying the skeletons of the unwashed masses thus has the potentiality to tell us lots of things we would never learn from the written record”, said Prof John Robb, of the department of archaeology and anthropology at Cambridge University. The bodies found below St John’s were mostly adults and might have included impoverished laborers and scholars.
The facial reconstruction has been done by Dr. Chris Rynn, a lecturer at the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification at the University of Dundee. He applied forensic methods to estimate the face structure, combining tissue depths and facial anatomy. These are the same techniques he uses when helping police identify decomposed bodies.
Once DNA data has been analyzed, Rynn will be able to add color to the man’s eyes and hair. Describing the man’s features. The burial site has long been known, but it was only after the college began renovating the basement of one of its buildings that it was excavated, with its contents revealed in 2015. Archaeologists found 400 largely complete skeletons and the partial remains of about 600 more.
The skeletons will be analyzed over four years, with specialists studying everything from the nutrition to the dental health of the medieval citizens. They will also face the impact of the Black Death on a medieval town’s population before, during and after an epidemic. No evidence of the disease has been found at the site so far. The reconstruction of the face was unveiled last week as part of a Science festival talk given by Robb at St John’s.