Facial reconstructions of people that lived long ago are tricky things, to say the least. A lot of inferences have to be made based on their fragmented skeleton, and even then, the quality of the replication varies wildly. However, it’s safe to say a team from the University of Cambridge have nailed it.
Presenting their work at the annual Cambridge Science Festival, an audience was enraptured as the photorealistic image of the face of a 13th-century Englishman stared back at them.
Dubbed rather curiously as “Context 958” by the team, the unnamed man was among 400 people buried underneath the Old Divinity School of St John’s College, and whose skeletal remains were excavated between 2010 and 2012.
Working in collaboration with the University of Dundee’s Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification, the researchers painstakingly took the 700-year-old remnants of this man and, piece by piece, reconstructed what he may have looked like. As you can see, the results are genuinely spectacular.
“Context 958 was probably an inmate of the Hospital of St John, a charitable institution which provided food and a place to live for a dozen or so indigent townspeople – some of whom were probably ill, some of whom were aged or poor and couldn't live alone,” John Robb, a professor of European prehistory from the University’s Division of Archaeology, said in a statement.
“Context 958 was over 40 when he died, and had quite a robust skeleton with a lot of wear and tear from a hard working life,” Robb added.
Introducing Context 958. Cambridge Archaeology via YouTube
The team noted that “he had a diet relatively rich in meat or fish, which may suggest that he was in a trade or job which gave him more access to these foods than a poor person might have normally had.”
Sadly, something sent him to the hospital and prevented him from going to work. Based on a series of tooth enamel growth defects, he had several periods of extensive illness. Eventually, he succumbed to one of them and he died, and it doesn’t appear that he had much of a family network to take care of him.
There also appears to have been some sign of a struggle near the time of his death – blunt force trauma wounds, which had recently healed over, were found on the back of his head. Poor guy.
Context 958, buried face-down. C. Cessford/University of Cambridge
Whomever he was, he died just before the Black Death reached its horrific crescendo in Europe, which ultimately took the lives of up to 200 million people. The excavation and study of this particular man is actually part of a larger Wellcome Trust-funded project to highlight the lives of the ordinary working poor around the time of the bubonic plague.