Archeologists trying to solve the 'medieval mystery of the booted man in the mud'
Published Tuesday, December 4, 2018 12:24PM EST
Lying face down in the deep mud of the banks of the River Thames, a male skeleton dating back approximately 500 years has been discovered wearing a pair of remarkably durable leather thigh-high boots.
Archeologists found the medieval skeleton and his virtually intact leather boots while working on a site in Bermondsey, south London, which is being used to build a tunnel or “super sewer” designed to prevent sewage pollution in the River Thames.
The intriguing discovery has prompted a team of archeological and osteological experts from the Museum of London Archeology (MOLA) to dig deeper into the life of the mysterious “booted man” and how he might have died.
According to a press release by MOLA on Monday, leather was an expensive commodity in the 15th or early 16th century and it was often reused.
“It is unlikely that someone would have been buried wearing such a highly prized item,” the researchers said.
Because he was still wearing the boots when he died, the scientists said they suspect he wasn’t buried deliberately and he may have had an “untimely demise.”
The prized footwear has also offered the researchers clues about the man’s possible occupation.
“The boots would have reached thigh height when fully extended therefore would have been ideal for walking out into the river and through the sticky Thames mud,” the press release said.
The boots were also made to last, according to the experts, who said they were reinforced with extra soles and stuffed with an “unidentified material” – possibly moss – for warmth or an improved fit.
Based on the boots he was wearing, the scientists speculated the man might have been a fisherman, a mudlark (someone who scavenges in river mud in search of valuables), or even a sailor.
“By studying the boots we’ve been able to gain a fascinating glimpse into the daily life of a man who lived as many as 500 years ago,” Beth Richardson, a Finds Specialist at MOLA Headland, said.
As for how he died, the researchers said the river was a “hazardous place” back then and the man’s occupation may have been responsible for his early death.
The museum’s osteologists believe the man was under the age of 35 when he died. They also discovered physical evidence that supports the theory that his work involved the river and was physically demanding.
The man appeared to suffer from the joint disease osteoarthritis before his death, according to the scientists. He also had deep grooves on his teeth, which the researchers believe might have been the result of a repetitive action, such as passing rope between his teeth as a fisherman might do.
“With the booted man, examining his teeth has given clues about his childhood and marks on his skeleton have allowed us to proffer ideas about the aches and pains he may have suffered from on a daily basis, the toll his job took on his body and even a little about what he might have looked like,” Niamh Carty, a human osteologist at MOLA Headland, said.
When the skeleton was discovered, the man’s “unusual” face-down position with one arm above his head and the other arm bent back on itself to the side has led the archeologists to believe he either fell or drowned and his body was quickly covered by river muck.
“Was he climbing the (medieval) Bermondsey Wall when he fell into the water? Did he become trapped in the mud and drown?” the experts proposed.
Although the researchers may never know the exact cause of his death, they said the discovery of the booted man has given them an “incredible” opportunity to explore the relationships between Londoners and the River Thames so many years ago.
The medieval booted man in the mud is helping us explore the historic relationships between the people of London and the Thames, and how this dangerous and powerful natural resource was used by so many to make a living: https://t.co/weAtUR1RBw @TidewayLondon #MOLAHeadland— MOLA (@MOLArchaeology) December 4, 2018
Our #MOLAHeadland archaeologists are unraveling a medieval mystery of a skeleton found face down in the Thames mud with his leather boots in tact during excavations for @TidewayLondon at #ChambersWharf. How did he meet his demise? Our team investigate: https://t.co/Gpm5UDukdQ pic.twitter.com/6yloKzLDjE— MOLA (@MOLArchaeology) December 4, 2018