Researchers study skeletons for stories of ‘ordinary folk’ in medieval Cambridge

(Joe Giddens/PA)
(Joe Giddens/PA)

Researchers have studied skeletons of people who lived in medieval Cambridge to learn more about “ordinary folk rather than elites, who are documented in historical sources”.

The series of bone biographies indicate that the prestigious university city was a sea of need, with poverty and disease taking their toll.

Archaeologists from Cambridge University analysed close to 500 skeletal remains excavated from burial grounds across the city, dating between the 11th and 15th centuries.

Samples came from a range of digs dating back to the 1970s.

The latest techniques were used to investigate diets, DNA, activities, and bodily traumas of townsfolk, scholars, friars and merchants.

The arm bones suggested which skeletons may have been early university scholars.

Almost all townsmen had asymmetric arm bones, with their right upper arm bone built more strongly than their left one, reflecting tough working regimes, particularly in early adulthood.

However, about 10 men from a hospital burial ground had symmetrical upper arm bones, yet they had no signs of a poor upbringing, limited growth, or chronic illness.

Most dated from the later 14th and 15th centuries.

Lead researcher Professor John Robb said: “These men did not habitually do manual labour or craft, and they lived in good health with decent nutrition, normally to an older age.

“It seems likely they were early scholars of the University of Cambridge.

“University clerics did not have the novice-to-grave support of clergy in religious orders.

“Most scholars were supported by family money, earnings from teaching, or charitable patronage.

“Less well-off scholars risked poverty once illness or infirmity took hold.

“As the university grew, more scholars would have ended up in hospital cemeteries.”

The “osteobiographies” use all available evidence to reconstruct a person’s life, Prof Robb said.

“Our team used techniques familiar from studies such as Richard III’s skeleton, but this time to reveal details of unknown lives – people we would never learn about in any other way,” he said.

Researcher Dr Sarah Inskip, now at the University of Leicester, said: “The importance of using osteobiography on ordinary folk rather than elites, who are documented in historical sources, is that they represent the majority of the population but are those that we know least about.”

The full osteobiographies are available on a new website launched by the After The Plague project at Cambridge University’s Department of Archaeology –