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Scientists reconstruct medieval man’s face after 700 years — and he looks just like James Bond

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Meet Context 958

Photo by Chris Rynn / University of Dundee

About 700 years after his death, a working-class man from Cambridge is getting a new face — one that looks like Daniel Craig after a poor night’s sleep.

The 13th century man, called Context 958, was found with hundreds of other skeletons in one of the largest medieval hospital graveyards in Britain. The mass grave was discovered underneath the Old Divinity School of St John’s College; it was excavated between 2010 and 2012. Now scientists in the UK are studying the remains to get a better understanding of the lives of ordinary poor people in medieval England. That includes using facial reconstruction technology and other forensics techniques to get a sense of how they looked.

“Most historical records are about well-off people and especially their financial and legal transactions — the less money and property you had, the less likely anybody was to ever write down anything about you,” John Robb, a professor at the University of Cambridge’s Division of Archaeology, said in a statement. “So skeletons like this are really our chance to learn about how the ordinary poor lived.”

Context 958’s skeleton found facedown in the cemetery of St John's.
Photo by C. Cessford

Context 958 was over the age of 40 when he died, and he was probably an inmate of the Hospital of St John, a charitable institution that provided food and shelter to the poor and sick between 1200 and 1500. His skeleton is pretty robust, “with a lot of wear and tear from a hard-working life,” Robb says. Unlike most poor people, however, Context 958 ate lots of meat or fish — which suggests he might have been in a trade or job that gave him access to that kind of “rich people” food.

In fact, his remains hint at a life of struggles. His tooth enamel stopped growing when he was young, suggesting he suffered from sickness or famine early on. Archaeologists also found evidence of “a blunt-force trauma” on the back of his skull, as well as dental abscesses — painful tooth infections, according to The Guardian.

Once Context 958’s DNA is analyzed, the facial reconstruction will include eye and hair color, Chris Rynn, a lecturer at the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification at the University of Dundee, who worked on the reconstruction, told The Guardian. That’s unlikely to change the ragged look of a James Bond with severe under-eye bags.

But even in black and white, looking a medieval man straight in the eyes is amazing. And that’s what the scientists analyzing all those graveyard remains are going for. “Humanizing people in the past, getting beyond the scientific facts to see them as individuals with life stories and experiences,” Robb says. “That's why putting all the data together into biographies and giving them faces is so important.”