Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Of teeth, diet, and centuries

While I was in the dentist's chair today my memory was cast back to a forty-year old memory which shows something about the impact of the modern diet against the best of the past.

Towards the end of a summer term in the late Seventies, after the exams had finished, an archaeological excavation was taking place in the site of the former Monastery chapter house at what is now a cathedral adjacent to my old school. The Headmaster (no namby-pamby "headteacher" nonsense back then even from thorough-going liberals such as Mr Kilvington in fact was) said that any sixth former who wanted to spend the last two weeks of the academic year as a volunteer on the dig instead of taking part in the usual low value make-work which tended to characterise the post-exam period could do so.

I was one of around a dozen boys who took up this suggestion, but if memory serves the only one who continued to work on the dig after the end of term when it was my own time I was giving up.

After a few weeks of work we had got below the chapter house floor and reached the level of a number of graves, the contents of which were removed with great respect and care, and subsequently reburied with due ceremony in the Cathedral. Enough of the monastery records had survived Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries that it was possible to be fairly certain of the identities of several of the monks whose mortal remains we were uncovering.

As one well-preserved and large skeleton emerged from the soil, Mr Martin Biddle, the archaeologist in charge of the dig, pointed it out to several of us as Brother Robert, born Robert Breakspear, father of Nicholas Breakspear, a.k.a. Pope Adrian the fourth.

This man had joined the monastery when we was widowed at a relatively young age with two young sons, and signed both his sons up for the church as well - and one of those sons became the only ever English pope. Hence because of his son's eminence he was buried in a place of high honour and he was one of those whose mortal remains the records made it readily possible to identify,

Martin pointed at the almost complete skeleton, and asked us "Do you notice anything interesting?"

None of us did, so he explained "Look at the teeth" and added that this man had been over eighty when he died and had been in the ground for more than eight hundred years.

And after all that time, I can bear witness that every one of his teeth was still in place in his skull.

He had lived the latter half of his long life in the monastery at St Albans, eating good but simple and evidently healthy food.

Obviously the monastic life could be a very healthy one but I just confess to being terribly impressed with how well he had taken care of himself in general and his teeth in particular.

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