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."

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor