Face of Cambridge man brought to life 700 years after his death

Reconstruction is part of research project aimed at gaining insights into the anonymous poor of the medieval city

The face of a Cambridge man who died more than 700 years ago has been reconstructed 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 remains were found in a graveyard under what is now the Old Divinity School of St Johns College.

The cemetery was attached to a hospital and independent charitable foundation 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 seeking new information on the poor who lived in the city, about whom there is little documentary evidence.

Prof John Robb, of the department of archaeology and anthropology at Cambridge University, said: We really dont know much about ordinary poor medieval people and their lives. Most work has focused either on upper middle classes or on celebrity bodies such as Richard III.

Studying the skeletons of the unwashed masses thus has potential to tell us lots of things we would never learn from the written record.

The bodies found beneath St Johns were mostly adults and might have included impoverished scholars and labourers.

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 techniques to estimate the face structure, combining tissue depths and facial anatomy.

Skeletal
The skeletal remains of the Cambridge man. Photograph: Chris Rynn/University of Dundee

These are the same techniques he uses when helping police identify decomposed bodies.

Rynn said: Its the skin textures that are more subjective. The shape is all anatomical and scientific, and then the texturing of it is more subjective. Thats what we need the input of archaeologists for. What kind of hair style would they have? What kind of clothes would they wear?

Once DNA data has been analysed, Rynn will be able to add colour to the mans eyes and hair.

Describing the mans features, Rynn said: His lower face is very masculine. Hes got quite a feminine eyebrow and forehead. Having that mix of hyper-male and almost androgynous within the same skull is quite unusual. He looks quite pleasant.

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 analysed over four years, with specialists studying everything from the nutrition to the dental health of the medieval citizens.

They will also look at the impact of the Black Death on a medieval towns population before, during and after an epidemic. No evidence of the disease has been found at the site so far.

The facial reconstruction was unveiled last week as part of a Science festival talk given by Robb at St Johns.

He said: For a long time, people have been working on skeletons as biomedical objects and trying to draw scientific conclusions, almost in a way not engaging with the fact that these are also people.

Analysis of the mans skeleton revealed a robust physique. He was well-nourished, living off a diet enriched by animal protein, while signs of physical labour included well-marked muscle attachments, the scientists found. There was also evidence of dental troubles, including abscesses. At his death, some time between 1200 at the earliest and 1300 at the latest, he was aged between 40 and 70.

Robb said: It is clear he comes from the poor urban working class, possibly a labourer or small tradesman or craftsman, He lived to a good age for his period and his skeleton shows the profile of a survivor lots of small-to-medium afflictions that caused pain and wear and tear but didnt kill him.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/mar/22/face-medieval-cambridge-man-emerges-700-years-after-death

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