Archaeologists are busy attempting to unravel a medieval mystery. About 500 years ago, a man ended his life lying face-down deep in the Thames mud. Who was he and what caused his death?
Could he have been a fisherman, a mudlark or perhaps a sailor? Was he climbing the Bermondsey Wall when he fell into the water? Did he become trapped in the mud and drown? Scientists have currently more questions than answers.
The river was a hazardous place even in the late 15th century, so perhaps his occupation was the cause of his death and the reason he came to be discovered.It may be that his discovery location – at a bend in the river downstream from the Tower of London at Chambers Wharf close to where the medieval Bermondsey Wall stood – is a natural confluence where materials accumulate in the river. The skeleton was uncovered during the construction of a shaft at Chambers Wharf, where one of the main tunnel boring machines digging the super sewer is due to start tunneling later next year.
Researchers from Mola Headland Archaeology state that the mans’ boots probably date to the late 15th or early 16th century. Leather was expensive and often re-used at this time and experts believe it is unlikely that someone would have been buried wearing such a highly-prized item. The boots would have reached thigh height when fully extended therefore would have been ideal for walking out into the river and through the sticky Thames mud, so were perhaps waders.
“By studying the boots we’ve been able to gain a fascinating glimpse into the daily life of a man who lived as many as 500 years ago. They have helped us to better understand how he may have made his living in hazardous and difficult conditions, but also how he may have died. It has been a privilege to be able to study something so rare and so personal,” Beth Richardson, Finds Specialist at MOLA Headland, said in a press statement.The man who was under the age of 35 at the time of death was discovered lying face-down, with one arm above his head with the other bent back on itself to the side. It’s an unusual position.
This could suggest that he fell or drowned and was covered quickly by the ground as it moved with the tide. Piecing together the clues is not easy, scientists think that the Medieval man had already led an active life which left its mark on his skeleton.
His daily life wouldn’t have been comfortable and he would have felt pain and discomfort from osteoarthritis. Possibly the biggest clues about his life, are deep grooves found on his teeth. They were caused by a repetitive action like passing rope between his teeth as a fisherman might – which may also suggest that he made his living from the river.
We may never know the identity of the booted man and why he died, but his skeleton has provided us with knowledge about the relationships between the people of London in the past and the river Thames and how this dangerous and powerful natural resource was used by so many as a means of making a living.