Cambridge Burials Unveil Medieval Secrets

Cambridge Burials

Location of The Hospital of St John the Evangelist and other sites studied (map by V. Herring).

Location of The Hospital of St John the Evangelist and other sites studied (map by V. Herring).

Archaeologists at Cambridge University have reconstructed the life stories of hundreds of ordinary medieval residents in the city. By scrutinizing skeletons from a medieval hospital burial ground (AD1200–1500), researchers used scientific data to shed light on the lives, health, and appearance of those whose names were lost to history.

Over 400 adults and children buried in the grounds of the hospital of St. John the Evangelist were examined. The findings provided insights into the operation of the hospital’s medieval “benefits system” and how it navigated the overwhelming “sea of need.”

The diversity of those buried at the hospital surprised researchers, encompassing orphan children, university scholars, and the “shame-faced” poor individuals who had experienced prosperity but fell into hardship, deemed particularly worthy of charity.

Excavated in 2010, the hospital site revealed unidentified graves. In a new study, experts in DNA, isotope analysis, human skeletal variation, and other disciplines meticulously examined up to 50 characteristics of each skeleton. The result is considered one of the most comprehensive datasets for medieval England.

A newly launched website, accompanying a research paper in Antiquity, highlights the lives of individuals discovered at the hospital. One such person, “Wat,” a stocky, dark-haired man, weathered multiple Black Death waves but succumbed to cancer around age 60 after facing difficult times. Another, “Maria,” who had a stunted height due to childhood poverty, engaged in heavy manual work, contracted tuberculosis, and, despite an improved diet at the hospital, died in her early 20s.

Approximately 10 male skeletons, identified as probable university scholars, exhibited arm bone symmetry, suggesting they avoided heavy manual labor, unlike most of the young male skeletons.

Professor John Robb, the lead researcher, emphasized the diverse backgrounds of those in the hospital, challenging the notion of a homogeneous underclass. The limited hospital capacity raised questions about decision-making processes for admissions.

The study suggests that by accommodating various individuals, the hospital appealed to a broad range of donors and emotions, contributing to its survival for 300 years.

Documentary

Source: (Why and How, 2018)

Sources

  • Inskip S, Cessford C, Dittmar J, et al. Pathways to the medieval hospital: collective osteobiographies of poverty and charity. Antiquity. 2023;97(396):1581-1597. doi:10.15184/aqy.2023.167

  • Addley, E. (2023, December). Archaeologists reveal life stories of hundreds of people from medieval Cambridge. The Guardian; The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2023/dec/01/archaeologists-life-stories-medieval-cambridge

  • Why and How. (2018). Ancient Burial Site Was Just Discovered Under Cambridge [YouTube Video]. In YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ALylw0LNcI

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