By their bones shall you know them

Londoners were once taller, Cole Moreton discovers

The first thing I see is a skull. A human one, lying on a table. The owner has been dead for a long time, judging by the dark yellow and brown stains on the bone. The eyes - or rather the empty sockets where the eyes were before the worms went to work - are unnerving.

The presence of human remains bothers me far more than it does Bill White, a genial fellow in a baggy woollen jumper who spends his whole life examining the dead. As an osteologist, an expert in the study of bones, he is one of 150 scientists who work for the Museum of London. The information they have gathered over the last two decades forms the basis for a major new exhibition exploring the way the bodies of Londoners have changed through the centuries.

Bill White's work is done far away from the museum crowds, at a secret location in the East End. As he picks up the skull and turns it over, little bits of dust and unidentified debris fall out. "There's almost no decay," he says, running a finger along the molars. "Sugar was expensive in those days."

The deceased man was a monk at Bermondsey Abbey during the Middle Ages. He died in his thirties, and lay undisturbed for hundreds of years, until someone decided to build on his grave. The construction company was legally obliged to hire an archaeologist, who arranged for the skeleton to be photographed from various angles before being lifted out and washed. The bones were laid out again and measured, before being bagged in transparent polythene, labelled, catalogued, and stored inside a cardboard box, on a shelf, in a warehouse.

As the scientists work in silence at computer screens, neon strip-lights cast a sickly light on piled boxes of human remains. There are Romans, Saxons and Elizabethans among the 6,500 skeletons unearthed and analysed by the museum team.

"The one thing we don't call them is stiffs," says Mr White cheerfully as he fingers four fused vertebrae. Techniques such as radiocarbon dating, chemical analysis and DNA testing have been used to find out how ancient Londoners looked and lived. When the museum is confident of having wrung the last drop of historical information from a skeleton it will be reburied on consecrated ground, not cremated. "We try to make sure we don't do anything to them that they would have been offended by," he says. "We have standards in that respect."

A few skeletons will be laid out under glass covers at the Barbican as part of the exhibition. Called "London Bodies", it will contain some surprises.

"The most astonishing thing is that we are not getting bigger," says Dr Simon Thurley, director of the museum. "The average height of an Anglo- Saxon woman is taller than the average height of a woman today." At five feet four and a quarter she is only half an inch bigger, but that's enough to turn received wisdom on its head. "The whole notion of progress and our bodies improving is undermined by the work of the osteologist."

Instead it seems that Londoners are roughly the same size now as they were a thousand years ago - although they are much taller than their great-great-grandparents, who suffered the disastrous environmental consequences of the Industrial Revolution. "Cities do pretty brutal things to people's bodies," says Dr Thurley.

Excavations at Aldgate, Giltspur Street and Barts hospital unearthed 800 bodies from the Roman period. Most were stocky and strong with physical characteristics such as pronounced jawlines and broad palates that suggested they were not invaders at all but native Britons who adopted Roman culture. Only 10 per cent lived beyond the age of 45.

The health of Londoners declined as their city became overcrowded. Graveyards in medieval hospitals and monasteries showed striking differences between rich and poor. The emaciated bodies of the poverty-stricken patients had bones and teeth weakened by starvation, while the monks and clerics who tended them were taller and showed signs of ailments, like gout, associated with being overweight. By Victorian times Londoners were almost all shorter than their modern counterparts, because of smog, overcrowding, bad sanitation and disease.

For Dr Thurley, the message of the exhibition is that Londoners have always had the potential to live long and grow tall. Even today, some of the six million inhabitants of the city do not get that chance. "Although a greater proportion of Londoners live in adequate housing and have a balanced diet, many do not. Those who live in the poorest boroughs now are on average shorter, less fit and die earlier."

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