The idea that people in the Dark Ages died around the age of 40 is not supported by the evidence, according to a study of human remains in three English cemeteries.
The study, by anthropologists Christine Cave and Marc Oxenham of the Australian National University in Canberra, focussed on tooth condition instead of bone development when examining remains of people buried between the years 475 and 625 CE.
The idea that most people during that period didn’t make it much past 40 is a product of classification rather than evidence, says Cave.
“Once people are fully grown it becomes increasingly difficult to determine their age from skeletal remains, which is why most studies just have a highest age category of 40-plus or 45-plus,” she says.
“So effectively they don’t distinguish between a fit and healthy 40-year-old and a frail 95-year-old.”
Tracking dental wear provided a much more graduated measure of age at death, and the central finding was surprising.
“For people living traditional lives without modern medicine or markets the most common age of death is about 70, and that is remarkably similar across all different cultures,” reveals Cave.
Studying the burial conditions in the three cemeteries – Greater Chesterford in Essex, Mill Hill in Kent, and Worthy Park in Hampshire – also exploded another romantic myth – that in pre-industrial English society old women were revered as wise matriarchs.
In fact, Cave and Oxenham report, old women were often given “non-normative” and “deviant” burials. Ageing in Anglo Saxon England, they conclude in their paper, “was a gendered process”.
“Women were more likely to be given prominent burials if they died young, but were much less likely to be given one if they were old,” says Cave.
“The higher status men are generally buried with weapons, like a spear and a shield or occasionally a sword. Women were buried with jewellery, like brooches, beads and pins. This highlights their beauty, which helps explain why most of the high-status burials for women were for those who were quite young.”
Andrew Masterson is a former editor of Cosmos.
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