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The Medieval skeleton was found still in its boots

Mystery Man in High Leather Boots: How Did His Medieval Skeleton End Up in London’s River Thames?

Archaeologists working at London’s 'super sewer' in Bermondsey have recovered the skeletal remains of a man, wearing high leather boots, lying face-down in the silt of the River Thames. Much about the medieval skeleton is a mystery.

The male skeleton was discovered during works at the Thames Tideway Tunnel at Tideway’s Chambers Wharf site in Bermondsey, which is being built to reduce sewage pollution in the River Thames. Jack Russell, the lead archaeologist for the Tideway project, told reporters at The Guardian , “As we work towards our goal of cleaning up the Thames and reconnecting London with it, it’s really important to acknowledge the lessons we can learn from significant discoveries like this.”

The Medieval skeleton. (MOLA Headland Infrastructure)

The Medieval skeleton. ( MOLA Headland Infrastructure )

The Rarity of a Medieval Skeleton in Boots

The man’s body was found at Chambers Wharf, at a bend in the river where materials naturally accumulate, during the construction of a shaft. Archaeologists say the most notable aspect of the find is that the man was found wearing remarkably well preserved – and extremely rare – knee-high boots, “made of leather ‘quarters’ and stitched together with waxed flax thread.” Beth Richardson, from  Mola Headland Infrastructure (MOLA Headland), told reporters , “In the absence of any metalwork or other dating evidence, the style of the boots – unheeled, with a single, flat sole reinforced with “clump soles” at the front and back – dated the skeleton to the late 1400s or early 1500s at the latest.”

The MOLA Headland press release says , “High boots are just not very common throughout medieval times, and actually [during] Tudor times and the 17th century as well. If you look at pictures or illuminated manuscripts or portraits, very few people are wearing boots.” These “waders” suggest the man was in the “river as a dock worker, mudlark or fisherman.”

The boots during the conservation process. (MOLA Headland Infrastructure)

The boots during the conservation process. ( MOLA Headland Infrastructure )

How Did This Booted Man ‘Kick’ The Bucket?

The Guardian article asks “Was he climbing the Bermondsey Wall when he fell into the water? Did he become trapped in the mud and drown?” What does the evidence suggest the most probable cause of death was? Beth Richardson said:

“The booted man’s position was unusual: face-down, with one arm above his head with the other bent back on itself to the side. These clues could suggest that he fell or drowned and was covered quickly by the ground as it moved with the tide. Our osteological experts have not identified evidence of any injuries at the time of death or a cause of death.”

Archaeologists carefully excavate the skeleton. (MOLA Headland Infrastructure)

Archaeologists carefully excavate the skeleton. ( MOLA Headland Infrastructure )

Although the archaeologists have not mentioned it, any river fisherman will know the terror of falling over when wearing knee high, or worse yet, chest high waders. When they fill with water one is essentially wearing cement boots, so maintaining balance mid-river becomes virtually impossible. We have all abandoned our rods and crawled ashore like two-year-olds, scrabbling for the bank. Add to this being stuck in silt, and it is not hard for the river fisherman to visualize just how this man most probably drowned.

What Can They Tell Us about the Medieval Man’s Life?

While the archaeologists will maybe never know exactly “how” the Londoner died, they have uncovered some clues about how he made a living. Niamh Carty, a specialist Human Osteologist at MOLA Headland, told reporters at the Guardian: “Studying a human skeleton provides incredible insights that allow us to create osteo-biographies of a person’s life.”

And the press release goes on to say, “Our osteologists think it’s possible he was under the age of 35 at the time of death, by then he had already led an active life which left its mark on his skeleton. His daily life wouldn’t have been comfortable – 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.”

Deep grooves were found on the teeth which would have been caused by a repetitive action.  (MOLA Headland Infrastructure)

Deep grooves were found on the teeth which would have been caused by a repetitive action.  ( MOLA Headland Infrastructure )

The archaeologists concluded:

“We may never know the answer to exactly how the booted man came to rest in the river, but his untimely death has offered an incredible opportunity to learn from him: to explore 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.”

Top Image: The Medieval skeleton was found still in its boots. Source: MOLA Headland Infrastructure

By Ashley Cowie

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