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Adolescence, Migration and Health in Medieval England: the osteological evidence

A research project of the Department of Archaeology


'As for unhealthiness, it may be supposed, that although seasoned Bodies may, and do live as long in London ... new-comers and children do not: for the smoaks, stinks and close air, are less healthful than that of the country...' (Graunt, 1662: 63).

In the 1500s, around 30,000 of London's inhabitants were young migrant workers and apprentices that, until now, have been archaeologically invisible. There is a consistent peak in 10-12 year olds in medieval urban cemeteries (c.1100-1500 AD), with high mortality, trauma and respiratory infections suggesting occupational hazards. Are these the apprentices? What was their health really like, how did they cope in such an alien environment, and how did they interact with the local population? Advances in forensic and archaeological science, and newly available large collections of adolescent skeletal remains from several key medieval sites, mean that these questions can now be explored.


This project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust (2011-2014), compares the evidence for occupational hazards (disease, trauma) and migration (lead and strontium isotope analysis) in young inhabitants of medieval London (St Mary Spital) with that of adolescents from a market town in Lincolnshire (Barton-on-Humber). The sample comprises 2422 individuals aged 10-25 years and represents the largest group of adolescent skeletons ever studied in the archaeological record. This project addresses several interrelated research questions: were young migrants present in medieval London prior to the documentary records; what was the age and sex of these individuals; did their occupation and lifestyle impact health, and was the health of London’s migrant workers worse than that of indigenous employees in a market town?

In recent years, an ‘archaeology of childhood’ has emerged in the archaeological literature, but has tended to focus on infants and younger children, and has yet to examine the transitional period of adolescence. Further, despite the theoretical interest in diaspora and migration, there has been little archaeological research to explore migration within medieval England. Despite the growing evidence that young apprentices and menial workers represent a clearly defined and disadvantaged group in the past, their lives have to date been neglected in archaeology.


This unique group of skeletons from two large contrasting multi-period sites allows for a series of new questions to be posed, and new osteological methods to be devised. For example, this study will explore the osteological signatures of puberty, to ascertain whether this biological landmark was acknowledged as a ‘rite of passage’ for the medieval adolescent. In addition to the usual signatures of occupational trauma and infection, detailed work into the nature and mechanisms of child trauma will also be conducted. Strontium and lead isotope analysis and lead concentrations will be calculated to examine evidence for the migration and possible origin of young migrants in London, and at Barton, to potentially provide a comparative ‘origin’ signature. The use of these cemeteries overlaps by some 400 years (1125-1598 AD) allowing trauma patterns, pathology, specific age markers and sex ratios to be directly compared between the sites. In addition, the uniquely detailed stratigraphic data from the London site, phased by extensive and targeted C14 dating, will allow for individuals from between the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries to be compared in terms of demography, health and migration signatures.

Project Partners

The project is headed by Dr Mary Lewis (Department of Archaeology, University of Reading) in collaboration with Dr Janet Montgomery (Department of Archaeology, Durham University) and Dr Fiona Shapland (Research Fellow, University or Reading). Research student, Petra Verlinden will be conducting the research on child trauma.

An engraving of medieval craftsmen and builders at work


From the Department of Archaeology:

  • Professor Janet Montgomery