Review – London Bodies

London Bodies – the changing shape of Londoners from prehistoric times to the present day

This book was published as companion to an exhibition run at the Museum of London from 27 October 1998 to 21 February 1999. Using the premise, “How have the bodies of Londoners changed through time?” London Bodies presents the results of analysis of skeletons excavated in London over the last twenty years in a reasonable accessible and not too dumbed-down fashion. It uses technology (as seen on television ™) to recreate their faces and bodies, although I don’t always find the results convincing and think they are sometimes more a gimmick for the masses who feel uncomfortable looking at human bones. This book presents enough statistical data to lay to rest some myths about Londoners of the past.

The book starts by discussing the methods and legality of digging up dead people and then goes into the conservation and analysis methods. One short paragraph covers ethics in its entirety. The remaining chapters are divided into vague time divisions, often dictated by a gap in the archaeological record or a major cultural change. To be honest, I found the chapter on Roman Bodies to be the best, and may well copy the bronze toilet set as sufficient dimensions are given. Although the opening chapter remarks that bone lead was analysed, no mention is made on the effects of the ingestion of lead on the physical development of either Roman or later, pewter using populations. It would seem relevant at this point. There may have been no effect as, in regular use lead quickly builds up a protective oxide coating that very effectively seals the metal.

The chapter on Medieval London gives the example of the 13th century cemetery at the hospital and priory of St Mary Spital near Bishopsgate and shows the contrast between the monastic and secular life: the strong condition of bones and teeth of the well-fed monks and the emaciated bodies of the sick and dying paupers in their care.

The chapter of most interest to us, Tailored Bodies covers Tudor and Elizabethan London, is mostly concerned with explaining the shape of bodies through fashion. It remarks most of the garments “seem to be generally on the small side” but that this may be because small clothing is harder to recycle. Obesity is not present in any of the fourteenth to sixteenth century samples of clothing or bodies.

Some good information on knitting is given that I haven’t seen elsewhere:

“Up to the late seventeenth century all knitting was worked in the round, either on several needles or a length of wire, and was shaped by decreasing or increasing stitches.”

Samples of heavily felted knitted hats are shown, one discarded fragment of a cap apparently was used as an innersole. London knitted stocks are discussed and contrasted with imported Spanish and Italian ones. Unfortunately, the book then leaps from 1600 to 1788 with a single painting of Lady Digby as a passing nod at the intervening 188 years.

One of the highlights of London Bodies is the bathrocranic skull. In the seventeenth century, one Londoner in ten had it, but today this genetic trait is very rare. Unfortunately, if you want any more information on bathocranicy, you’ll have to look elsewhere, everything in the book is in this review.

The comparative heights table from page 108 is reproduced below. Readers are invited to compare their noble proportions with those of their 17th century peers:

Period Male Female
Prehistory 170 158
Roman 169 158
Saxon 173 163
Medieval 172 160
Tudor & Stuart 172 158
Georgian 171 157
Victorian 166 156
1998 175 162

Note is made that the Prehistory sample size is too small for statistical analysis and a single burial site was used. Measurements for the periods up to and including Georgian contain a potential error of ±1-2cm. The conclusion of the book is that on average we are taller (but only just), live longer (than many but not all) and are better fed than our ancestors. But you already knew that.

Occasionally, this book is prone to the sweeping statement, as is necessary for all books that try to cover 6000 years in a shade over 100 pages, but for all its shortcomings is well presented, well researched and leaves the reader wanting to know more. Do you think the MOL would pack up the whole exhibition and send it over here if we ask nicely?

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