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Skeletal trauma reveals inequalities of Cambridge's medieval residents

The remains of a man buried in the graveyard of an Augustinian friary located in Cambridge, England, are among several that researchers say reveals the possibly rough life the city's residents had. Photo by Nick Saffell
The remains of a man buried in the graveyard of an Augustinian friary located in Cambridge, England, are among several that researchers say reveals the possibly rough life the city's residents had. Photo by Nick Saffell

Jan. 25 (UPI) -- The inequities of medieval society are preserved in the bones of Cambridge's early residents, according to a new survey of skeletal trauma.

For the study, researchers at the University of Cambridge analyzed the remains of 314 people dating to between the 10th and 14th centuries, cataloging the levels of "skeletal trauma" exhibited in their bones.

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Scientists used skeletal trauma as a proxy for socioeconomic status -- the more wear and tear present on a person's bones, the more likely he or she experienced a life of hardship and poverty.

To ensure their survey captured the full spectrum of medieval society, researchers sourced remains from several burial sites. These included a parish graveyard used by working class residents and a burial site next to a charitable hospital for inmates and the infirm, as well as a graveyard where clergy and aristocrats were buried side by side.

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Researchers found 44 percent of the remains from the working class graveyard featured fractures, while just 32 percent of those from the friary were marred by bone breaks.

The survey -- published Monday in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology -- also turned up evidence of various forms of violence, including a friar that appeared to have been the victim of an ancient hit-and-run accident.

"By comparing the skeletal trauma of remains buried in various locations within a town like Cambridge, we can gauge the hazards of daily life experienced by different spheres of medieval society," lead study author Jenna Dittmar said in a news release.

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"We can see that ordinary working folk had a higher risk of injury compared to the friars and their benefactors or the more sheltered hospital inmates," said Dittmar, an archaeologist at Cambridge.

The origins of the University of Cambridge can be traced to the year 1205, but the academic institution remained in its infancy during the Middle Ages.

Cambridge was mostly a town of artisans, merchants and farmhands, and while working class residents were more likely to experience skeletal trauma, the results of the latest survey suggest life was hard for almost everyone.

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In fact, the most traumatic injury uncovered by the researchers was suffered by a friar -- the man's position revealed by his burial place and belt buckle.

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"The friar had complete fractures halfway up both his femurs," said Dittmar. "Whatever caused both bones to break in this way must have been traumatic, and was possibly the cause of death."

The femur, or thigh bone, is the largest in the body. Dittmar said today's emergency room doctors would be familiar with the kind of fracture suffered by the friar. Pedestrians hit by cars often suffer a double femur break.

"Our best guess is a cart accident," Dittmar said. "Perhaps a horse got spooked and he was struck by the wagon."

Researchers also found evidence of domestic abuse. The bones of elderly woman buried beside the parish showed signs of a lifetime of injuries.

"She had a lot of fractures, all of them healed well before her death. Several of her ribs had been broken as well as multiple vertebrae, her jaw and her foot," said Dittmar. "It would be very uncommon for all these injuries to occur as the result of a fall, for example. Today, the vast majority of broken jaws seen in women are caused by intimate partner violence."

Work in the field was the more common source of injury for those buried in the parish of All Saints by the Castle.

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Though the remains of the church itself has never been found, the graveyard was discovered and first excavated in the 1970s. The parish graveyard housed the remains of Cambridge's poorest citizens.

Men would have earned a meager living hauling heavy stones and lumber or guiding heavy ploughs across the fields of the hinterland, the uncharted land beyond the town center.

"Many of the women in All Saints probably undertook hard physical labors such as tending livestock and helping with harvest alongside their domestic duties," Dittmar said. "We can see this inequality recorded on the bones of medieval Cambridge residents. However, severe trauma was prevalent across the social spectrum. Life was toughest at the bottom -- but life was tough all over."

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