Bodies at the Museum of London

By Werner, Alex | History Today, November 1998 | Go to article overview

Bodies at the Museum of London


Werner, Alex, History Today


Just as each person differs from the next on the surface, so each skeleton differs from all others, and can reveal not just what a person looked like, but also the conditions in which they lived. A new exhibition at the Museum of London, `London Bodies: the Changing Shape of Londoners from Prehistoric Times to the Present Day' draws on research based on over 6,000 skeletons in Museum's care.

Such a large number -- with many dating from the Roman, medieval and Georgian periods -- has enabled fascinating conclusions to be made about how Londoners have changed over the centuries; whether they were well fed, what diseases they suffered from and how sections of society differed.

The exhibition uses modern methods of analysis and the latest technology to recreate the faces and bodies of our ancestors. Examples are shown together with images, objects, clothing and artefacts to build up a picture of Londoners from the Neolithic period to the present.

The Roman section is based on research derived from excavations which revealed an extensive cemetery to the east of the Roman town in the Aldgate area. From here some 550 skeletons and over 100 cremated individuals were recently excavated. Further skeletons and cremations were also recovered from earlier digs at West Tenter Street, the western cemetery at Giltspur Street and at St Bartholomew's Hospital. These areas, especially the eastern one, have provided the first real opportunity for the controlled gathering on a large-scale of data about Roman Londoners.

Although class and status are rarely discernible from a single skeleton, there are several indicators which suggest differences in social or economic standing. Those with a better diet may have grown taller than those with a poor diet; diseases such as tuberculosis target the poor and those living in overcrowded conditions, while others such as gout may reflect relative affluence. Generally, however, the Roman burials reveal a community in which most had adequate nutrition and few show signs of having had either an exceptionally rich and ample diet, or a particularly deficient one.

Classical writers have portrayed British women as being as tall and well-built as their husbands. Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni, was described as `very tall in stature, in appearance most terrifying, in the glance of her eye most fierce, harsh in voice... and with a great mass of bright red hair falling to her hips.' However, average Roman Londoners were only slightly shorter than their modern counterparts. In the eastern cemetery, the average male height was 1.69m, with a range of 1.58 to 1.80m, while the average female height was 1.58m, ranging from 1.45 to 1.72m. In spite of this, the claims of classical writers were not without foundation. Taller individuals have been discovered, such as a man at Giltspur Street who was 1.88m tall and a woman from St Bartholomew's Hospital with a height of 1.72m. Comparable heights have been recorded at Cirencester and at York.

Overall, the Roman build tended towards the robust: the majority of skeletons were strikingly uniform in their skull shape, many of the females having characteristics around the jaw line generally accepted as male. A few males had very emphatic angles to their jaw, flaring outwards. This characteristic was noted at Poundbury, a rural cemetery thought to contain people who were local to the area and not dissimilar in looks to the area's inhabitants today. Most Roman Londoners appear to have been native Britons.

One question occupying those studying Roman London concerns the extent and nature of the military occupation of the town. …

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