These boots were made for walking—and surviving the ravages of time. In London, archaeologists discovered the 500-year-old skeleton of a man lying face down in the mud of the River Thames, wearing thigh-high leather boots that were basically still intact.
The boots date to the late 15th or early 16th century, and would have been ideal for someone who worked or lived along the river, as the man wearing them likely did. This kind of life was grueling: the reinforced boots would’ve been used by a fisherman or mudlark—i.e., a person who scavenges river mud for items—to navigate the Thames’ sticky mud and cold, dangerous waters.
Our man in boots was about 35 when he died. Though that’s young for a Londoner today, he had already lived a long, rough life, and suffered from osteoarthritis.
“Possibly the biggest clues about his life are deep grooves found on his teeth,” says a press release from MOLA Headland Infrastructure, the archaeological group examining the skeleton. “They were caused by a repetitive action like passing rope between his teeth as a fisherman might—which may also suggest that he made his living from the river.”
Archaeologists discovered the boot man on the site where London is building a new sewer system. Discoveries made while building public infrastructure are pretty common in Europe. Rome’s subway construction has unearthed a whole bunch of artifacts, from medieval pots and pans to ancient military barracks. And in August 2018, archaeologists announced they’d identified Germany’s oldest library, which was unearthed during construction for a community center.
MOLA researchers will continue to study the boot man and any other archaeological evidence that turns up during the sewer construction. “Studying a human skeleton provides incredible insights that allow us to create osteo-biographies of a person’s life,” said Niamh Carty, a human osteologist at MOLA, in the press release.
“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.”