Investigating London’s man of mystery

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The skeleton of a man who lived as many as 500 years ago was recently found buried in the mud of the Thames, face-down and wearing a pair of thigh-high leather boots. (PHOTO: MOLA Headland Infrastructure)

The skeleton of a man wearing thigh-high leather boots and buried face-down in the mud has been discovered in the Thames. The individual’s remains were found near Chambers Wharf in Bermondsey by MOLA Headland archaeologists working in advance of construction for the Thames Tideway Tunnel – a ‘super sewer’ intended to stop sewage pollution in the Thames.

How did he come to be buried in the Thames? The fancy footwear, in combination with the man’s unusual burial position, seem to indicate that this individual met an untimely demise. Did he fall while climbing the nearby Bermondsey Wall? Did he become trapped in the mud and drown? His boots and bones offered some clues.

The man’s distinctive footwear is believed to date to the late 15th or early 16th century. As leather was expensive during this time, and often reused, MOLA specialists think it unlikely that he would have been purposefully buried with such coveted items. They also appear to have been reinforced with extra soles and stuffed with some sort of organic material – possibly moss – which may have been used either as insulation or to improve the fit of the boots. Taken together with their thigh-high length, they may have been used as waders – making it seem likely that he made his living from the river.

‘By studying the boots, we have been able to gain a fascinating glimpse into the daily life of a man who lived as many as 500 years ago,’ said Beth Richardson, finds Specialist at MOLA Headland. ‘They have helped us to better understand how he may have made his living in hazardous and difficult conditions, but also how he may have died.’

The man’s bones offered further clues. While he was younger than 35 years old at death, he appears to have lived a hard life up until that point, with signs of osteoarthritis that may have affected his movements. He also had deep grooves in his teeth, most likely caused by a repetitive action such as passing rope between his teeth, as a fisherman might – further hinting at a riverine lifestyle. While we may never know exactly how this man died, the mounting evidence suggests that his death may have been work-related.

This article appeared in CA 347.

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