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Medieval skeletons show social inequality 'recorded on the bones'

Hundreds of bones found in Cambridge, England, tell harsh tales of life between the 10th and 14th centuries. Especially for laborers.

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The remains of a person buried in the Augustinian friary, one of three burial sites in Cambridge, England, excavated as part of a study of skeletal trauma as an indicator of past hazard risk. 

Nick Saffell

Human remains from Cambridge, England, dating back 10 centuries reveal social inequities etched on the residents' very bones.

Researchers studied the skeletons of 314 people who lived between the 10th and the 14th centuries, carefully cataloging every break and fracture to correlate social strata with the risk of skeletal trauma. The results, published Monday in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, add to the understanding of economic and physical hardship in medieval Europe -- and demonstrate once again how much the archaeological record can tell us about the daily lives of our forebears. 

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

The bones in the Cambridge study come from three very different burial sites housing remains of residents across the social spectrum: a parish graveyard for the working poor; a charitable hospital that housed the sick and needy; and an Augustinian friary that held the remains of wealthy donors alongside clergy. The workers buried in the parish graveyard, called All Saints by the Castle, showed the most trauma, likely a result of injuries sustained working in agriculture and construction. These fields involved laboring with heavy ploughs pulled by horses or oxen, and lugging stone blocks and wooden beams through town. 

"These were people who spent their days working long hours doing heavy manual labor. In town, people worked in trades and crafts such as stonemasonry and blacksmithing, or as general laborers," study lead Jenna Dittmar of the University of Cambridge's Department of Archaeology, said in a statement. "Outside town, many spent dawn to dusk doing bone-crushing work in the fields or tending livestock."

jenna

Study lead Jenna Dittmar catalogs bone fragments that paint a dramatic picture of physical hardships in medieval Cambridge. 

University of Cambridge video screenshot by Leslie Katz/CNET

By the 13th century, Cambridge was an economically thriving market town and inland river port whose vast majority of residents were laborers. Using X-ray analysis, Dittmar and other researchers found that 44% of the working people they studied had bone fractures, compared with 32% of those buried at the friary and 27% of those buried by the hospital. Fractures were more common in male remains (40%) than female (26%) across all burials, a finding consistent with past research indicating medieval men were at increased risk of injuries compared with medieval women. 

But it wasn't just full-time laborers who showed signs of significant physical trauma. Though friars of the day spent most of their time engaged in spiritual pursuits and study, they also took on daily tasks to maintain their monasteries. One man detailed in the research, identified as a friar by his belt buckle and burial site, showed complete fractures halfway up both his thigh bones, an extreme injury that may have led to his death.    

The researchers suspect a cart accident. "Perhaps a horse got spooked and he was struck by the wagon," Dittmar said.   

Not all the fractures resulted from accidental injury. The researchers observed skeletal injuries related to violence in about 4% of the population, including women and people from all social groups.

One friar showed defensive fractures on his arm and signs of blunt force trauma to his skull. And a woman buried in the parish grounds appeared to bear the marks of lifelong domestic abuse -- several of her ribs had been broken, as had multiple vertebrae, her jaw and her foot.   

"She had a lot of fractures, all of them healed well before her death," Dittmar said. "It would be very uncommon for all these injuries to occur as the result of a fall, for example. Today, the vast majority of broken jaws seen in women are caused by intimate partner violence."

Taken together, the hundreds of skeletons tell a tale of widespread hardship. 

"Life was toughest at the bottom," Dittmar said, "but life was tough all over."