The expression “he died with his boots on,” generally refers to someone who literally drops dead while working, usually at a ripe, old age, toiling away at a job they love. For a man whose remains were recently found at the Chambers Wharf site in London, at the Tideway Tunnel, the expression is perhaps more a description of the difficulty of his work, rather than his love for his profession.
Either way, he did indeed die with his boots on, leather ones, to be specific, that came half way up his thighs and turned over at the top. His body dates back, archaeologists say, to the late 15th century, when the area where he was found was booming with a factory, plenty of pubs, and a busy fishing industry along the Thames.
Experts say his cause of death is impossible to determine, but many clues about the life he led – a tough one, they say – are elucidated by the remains. For example, his chest indicates that he likely did hard, physical labour, perhaps along the river’s shore, or as a fisherman.
Injuries still apparent on one of his hips reveal that he walked with a pronounced limp. And the way he lay – face down, one arm over his head – suggests he died accidentally, and was given no proper burial. He somehow fell, or drowned, and was instantly covered by mud and debris more than 500 years ago.
The tunnel, which will be more than 15 miles long, is being excavated because officials are anxious to deal with the rampant pollution in and along the Thames.
The remains are being studied by experts at the Museum of London Archaeology. One team member, Beth Richardson, told the BBC that, “it is extremely rare to discover any boots from the late 15th century, let alone a skeleton wearing them.” Studies of the boots, and of course the man wearing them, are continuing.
The site, at Bermondsey, must be fully excavated before a massive boring machine can get to work, probably later this year, on the new tunnel.
The remains have given experts many insights into the kind of life the man led, toiling away at his difficult job at the Thames. For example, his bones make clear that he had osteoarthritis, a painful and chronic condition that causes one’s joints to swell and ache.
Furthermore, his teeth were damaged in such a way that archaeologists can tell he repeatedly held something in his mouth, probably a large rope, that was used in his daily on-the-job activities. These clues and others demonstrate that this man, whomever he was, led a very painful and difficult life because of the kind of intense labour he performed.
One expert at the museum noted that, “he would have suffered on a daily basis,” and was probably in his early or mid thirties when he died.
The so-called “super sewer” will snake beneath London, and will take perhaps a decade to complete. It has been discussed and debated by governments for more than five years, but boring will finally get underway sometime in 2021.
Officials hope the project will finally begin to deal with the massive pollution in, and along the banks of, the Thames. Ultimately the sewer is projected to cost billions of pounds.
Because London is such an ancient city, it’s fair to say that this gentleman will probably not be the only rare and unusual find workers come across while excavating the site. There may be more bodies, and plenty of artifacts and objects that will reveal what life was like so many centuries ago in the capital.
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One thing is certain – for men like this one, who made his living from the Thames, life would not have been an easy undertaking.