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Project Number: 738

Project pseudonym: "Roger"

Site: All Saints by the Castle

Feature/Burial Number: 204

Born between: 1154 and 1202

Died between: 1214 and 1262

Older man, probably a specialised craftsman.

A reconstruction image of a medieval man working

Reconstruction image: Mark Gridley

​“Roger” was born sometime in the second half of the twelfth century, between about 1154 and 1202. At least towards the end of his life, if not for all of it, he lived in the parish of All Saints by the Castle, a small, semi-rural parish on the northern outskirts of the city. He lived his allotted three score and ten years or close to it, dying sometime between 1214 and 1262 at an age of at least 60.


The thirteenth century was a prosperous century, with towns such as Cambridge growing and flourishing. “Roger” seems to reflect this. His childhood passed without significant growth interruptions reflected in his skeleton; his adult stature matched the town average (174 cm for males). His skeleton testifies to his immune system, with healed sinus and pleural infections. His teeth are heavily worn, down to their roots in some cases, which we would expect for his advanced age. He may have enjoyed a diet containing more animal and marine proteins than almost all of the people he was buried among. He may have been a bit accident-prone (though, as his skeleton records at least four decades of adult life, the number of broken bones it shows may simply testify to his long life). He broke his right fibula, his right collarbone, and two lower vertebrae. The first of these is typical of a severely twisted ankle and the others commonly result from falls or accidents; we do not know whether these happened in three separate incidents or one severe one. They all healed sturdily, though with two vertebrae compressed together and fused, and his collarbone shows the shortening of a centimetre or two which often happens in fractured clavicles which are not set by a doctor.

“Roger’s” upper arms and shoulders had pronounced muscles, he had severe osteoarthritis in his left shoulder and neck, and the cartilage around his upper left ribs was ossifying, perhaps in response to mechanical strain. At the same time, while his bones were of average mechanical strength, they were much more asymmetrical than most people’s. His right arm was evidently subject to much more mechanical loading than his left. This suggests that he practiced some specialised, repetitive craft, rather than being a general labourer. This impression is strengthened by his idiosyncratic pattern of osteoarthritis. He displays specific, symmetrical points at the base of both thumbs where the cartilage has worn away under mechanical stress and bones were wearing directly against each other. Other such points appear in his fourth finger of his left hand, and at the base of his right big toe. Most of his skeleton does not show much osteoarthritis, particularly considering his advanced age, and such specific, quirky points of severe wear suggest that he habitually performed some particular, repetitive, stressful activity.

Was he pushing a spokeshave for decades? Pushing a needle or awl through stiff leather to make saddles or shoes? Treadling a lathe? We don’t know. Thirteenth century tax rolls show that this parish contained a number of specialised craftsmen, including tailors, smiths, coopers, brewers and others. Although repetitive stresses can shape the body, and occupational health specialists have identified ailments specific to many jobs, anthropologists have rarely been able to successfully identify specific activities or occupations from such clues. Moreover, the skeleton is a palimpsest which may record quite separate activities and things which occurred at quite different times of life. Nevertheless, it seems highly likely that “Roger” spent much of his life as a craftsman practising some specialised trade, working wood, stone, leather or metal. Socially, this would have put him a cut above ordinary labourers, with a higher and more stable income, a recognised set of skills, and, depending upon the occupation, the possibility of guild membership.

Notes on interpretation/open questions

  • We don’t know what specific craft PSN 738 would have practiced. We’ve chosen to show him turning wood on a lathe, but we could equally have shown him shaping wood with a plane or spokeshave, stitching leather, or doing some other specialised craft which stresses the hands held in a particular pose.

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