Social Osteology and Osteobiography
Analyses of bones and teeth offer a unique opportunity to explore the lives of ordinary people. These are the people that we know the least about as they are usually missing from written sources. The skeleton is a source of rich information about a person and their life experiences. This is because bone is a living tissue that constantly changes throughout our lives. It takes on chemical signatures of the environment and diet, adapts to physical stress, and responds to disease and injury. Teeth, which form in childhood, provide valuable insight into someone's early years, including diet, disease, and place of origin. Genetics provide key information on physical appearance, disease, and ancestry.
Bringing together all data from one individual and assessing it in a chronological framework allows us to build a picture of someone’s life. This is known as an osteobiography. Social osteology explores signs of activity and lifestyle, combining them with statistical analyses to explore how they relate to gender, class, and specialisation.
Although they reveal a lot of information, bones and teeth cannot tell us everything; we can never know someone's real name, what their exact job may have been, or if they were married or single, an enslaved person or free.
The osteobiography of each skeleton can be ‘fleshed out’ to imagine real people using other information. Archaeological information from their burial can tell us about their community and social status. Historical sources might tell us about likely occupations, names, and everyday experiences that we can add to data from bones and teeth.
For more information on how archaeologists create osteobiographies, and some of the conceptual issues it involves, see the People of Medieval Cambridge page.
Usually archaeologists analyse groups of skeletons defined by sites. But any site may contain quite different kinds of people, and people aren’t just defined by where they end up getting buried. With the After the Plague project, we tried to bring together osteobiographies for whole groups from across the city and through time. We believe this is our best chance for getting beyond the anonymity of death and the blank uniformity of skeletons in a cemetery.
Some of the bones used to investigate PSN 356's osteobiography
Photos: Sarah Inskip
The townspeople of Cambridge had a hard-labouring life with a lot of knocks, a fair bit of disease, and a diet probably based largely on grain and vegetables. But, to judge from historic records such as tax assessments and from other medieval towns, there was a lot of variation. Almost everyone did manual work in some way, including women, who practiced a number of trades and worked in markets and the fields as men did. There were a few rich people, including landowners, professionals, and merchants. Most people were poor, with little security, but this category included people earning a living through regular work for wages, casual labourers, and people living in dire poverty. People with skilled trades, often acquired by serving long apprenticeships, could own workshops in a town like Cambridge, employ others, and sometime amass substantial wealth. Because there was little effective health care available to wealthy people, being well-off did not necessarily mean one had better health, but it could mean you ate a richer diet or were spared some of the life risks of heavy labour.
The town contained other kinds of people too. The Friars were religious professionals living in a rule-bound, well-funded niche environment. The Hospital of St. John provided shelter for a few impoverished people. There were many pathways leading people to the Hospital cemetery. About half the people there may not have been so poor, but needed support at particular times of their lives. Some people were led there by dire poverty, either in childhood or lifelong. A few lived comfortable lives but fell into poverty in old age. A few were travellers who died in a foreign land and needed Christian burial. Some were scholars in need.
We study skeletons, but ultimately every one was an individual with their own story. The osteobiographies on this website put together all the data on some of these individuals to try to reconstruct their lives. See the People of Medieval Cambridge page for a look at some medieval lives in detail.