Demography, health and activity in the past

The on-going study of the Priory Orchard medieval cemetery (see here) has started a series of new projects that explore life and death in a period of English history for which we have only limited understanding, over the transition between Anglo-Saxon and Norman rule and lifestyle. The projects focus on the Priory Orchard cemetery from Godalming (c. 850–1200 CE), setting it into the wider picture of how life was changing across Britain over these centuries. About a third of the primary burials are due to be radiocarbon dated in early 2022 (thanks to NEIF/NERC funding), providing a rare temporal definition to the study of diet, health and migration during the time span of the cemetery.

Diet and health

An on-going study is looking at diet in the Priory Orchard population (as gauged from isotope analyses) in respect to other English population of the period. Diet is interesting because it is linked to subsistence and lifestyle, and to social and economic factors. We are looking at how diet in the Priory Orchard population varied in relation to sex, to age, and to indices of activity levels (including evidence of trauma). Diet can also affect general health, and we are interested in how it might have affected dental health as well as growth and development.

A second study currently in development looks at the microbiome of the mouth, and how it varied among individuals and in respect to modern times.

Maxillary teeth showing two large cavities.

Demography and mobility

Isotope analyses are also being carried out to evaluate the level of migration and mobility of people that were buried in Godalming in medieval times. Some of the burials show unusual practices, for example the presence of a ‘halo’ of ashes around the head of the person, which suggests cultural exchanges, and potentially exchanges of migrants, with other areas of England.

Two burials with sings of an ‘ash halo’ around the head. Copyright Surrey County Archaeological Unit (part of Surrey County Council).

Activity and warfare

Life was clearly very hard for many of the people buried in the Priory Orchard cemetery. As the study of the remains progresses, we are collecting evidence of very high activity levels and strain on some of the muscles (see picture of the clavicle and humerus). Preliminary analysis also indicate high bone robusticity (how chunky and strong are the bones, often due to activity levels) in women in respect to some other comparative populations.

Cuts on the top of the head, possibly inflicted by a sword, that occurred around the time of death.

Several of the men in the cemetery show signs of trauma due to inter-personal violence. There are a number of remains of men with clear evidence of sharp trauma to the head, most likely caused by a sword (see picture). It is very interesting that many of these profound wounds healed, in some cases despite the brain was likely exposed, and the person survived for months or even years.

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