Skeleton helps chart pilgrim's progress

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SCIENTIFIC investigation of a headless skeleton found in a grave at Worcester cathedral has provided a remarkable insight into the lives of medieval Christian pilgrims, the meeting was told yesterday.

The skeleton - headless, but otherwise extremely well preserved - was clothed in woollen garments and knee-length boots. 'To our surprise, the first indication of a body was the appearance of two leather toe-caps poking up through the soil,' the chief archaeologist at the site, Philip Barker, said.

The skeleton was lying with his arms crossed on his chest. Archaeologists believe construction work may have destroyed his head and neck. The team became convinced it had stumbled on a pilgrim after finding a long wooden walking staff with a double-pronged iron tip alongside the skeleton.

They also found a cockle shell, pierced so it could be worn as a badge. 'This is reminiscent of the scallop shell tokens associated with the famous shrine of St James of Compostela, in north- west Spain (the Middle Ages' most important pilgrim destination after Jerusalem and Rome),' Mr Barker said.

Mr Barker told the meeting that no grave of a clothed pilgrim, complete with staff, had been found in Britain before.

Excavation of the site began in 1986, and analysis has convinced him that the body dates to the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century. His clothes were made of a twill-weave worsted cloth, and he wore a loose outer garment, with folds, falling to just below the knee.

The man was probably more than 60 years old when he died, and the skeleton shows he suffered from very bad arthritis, with several joints fused together. He appears to have been active when younger, and analysis of his leg bone measurements show he did many long and arduous walks. The skeleton also appears to have two arrow wounds.

Mr Barker said: 'Our man is a unique and important archaeological discovery. Such tangible remains of an individual pilgrim give us a remarkably direct link with the thousands of pilgrims of medieval Christendom.'