This is from this month’s `British Archaeology’ (www.archaeologyuk.org) – the story of an excavation in Durham, where bodies of soldiers taken after a battle in 1650 between the forces of Oliver Cromwell and some residual royalists and their mercenaries ended in buried in mass graves.
The prisoners were not deliberately killed, it seems, but the grave where so many of their bodies was found in digs up to last year showed how tough conditions and maltreatment finished many of them off. Analysis on one skeleton, number 21, turned up some incredible things, and shows just how far science has come today. From tests, the laboratory was able to identify where the person was born, their diet, what times in their life they had suffered illness, and the kind of home they had lived in. The description goes:
`In childhood he suffered hunger or disease, as well as anaemia. In the 1630s he lived in western Scotland and while still a child he moved again. He had chipped teeth and painful dental abscesses. He had herniated a disc in the idle of his back, perhaps by heavy lifting or simply by sneezing while doubled over… He suffered two more episodes of malnutrition, one in his late teens and another at around 21. A few months before his death he was wounded above his left eye… After the battle and march, he spent some time as a prisoner in Durham Cathedral. There be probably fell ill with dysentery before being transferred to the castle, where he died of his illness.’
As the article goes on to say, archaeology is a remarkably democratizing force. `We probably know as much about this group of men as we do about anyone who lived in 17th century Scotland.’ Skeleton 21’s story is a remarkable haunting one – a vivid illustration of the famous statement by Hobbes, the almost contemporaneous philosopher, who wrote in Leviathan of the life of man being nasty, brutish and short. The article finishes this account off with a reconstruction of the prisoner’s face. If you think of just how tough this guy’s life was, it is a haunting portrait – the emergence from the great anonymity of history, completely unexpectedly, of a face that speaks to us, tells it story to is, and expresses its pain centuries after its death.