Lives In Context

A few minutes after leaving work yesterday, I was sat in a queue of traffic.  This isn’t unusual as work is not from the motorway so the roads are generally busy at rush hour.

I looked in my rear view mirror and noticed the driver of the car behind.  What struck me about her was that she appeared to be staring rather blankly ahead, her mind many miles away from the physical location of the car that her body was sat in.

I began to wonder what she was thinking about and what had played out in her story up until that point that was taking her focus.

Back in my car, the news on wireless told a story of a man called “Context 958”, an ‘ordinary poor’ man from medieval Cambridge.  What the audience of an event at this year’s Cambridge Science Festival were seeing was a new facial reconstruction of a man buried in a medieval hospital graveyard discovered underneath the Old Divinity School of St John’s College.


Scientists had tried to put together a story of his life from his skeleton.  Professor John Robb, from the University’s Division of Archaeology, said:

Context 958 was probably an inmate of the Hospital of St John, a charitable institution which provided food and a place to live for a dozen or so indigent townspeople – some of whom were probably ill, some of whom were aged or poor and couldn’t live alone.

Context 958 was over 40 when he died, and had quite a robust skeleton with a lot of wear and tear from a hard working life. We can’t say what job specifically he did, but he was a working class person, perhaps with a specialised trade of some kind.

One interesting feature is that he had a diet relatively rich in meat or fish, which may suggest that he was in a trade or job which gave him more access to these foods than a poor person might have normally had. He had fallen on hard times, perhaps through illness, limiting his ability to continue working or through not having a family network to take care of him in his poverty.

Apparently, Context 958’s life was one of adversity. His tooth enamel had stopped growing on two occasions during his youth, suggesting he had suffered bouts of sickness or famine early on. Archaeologists also found evidence of a blunt-force trauma on the back of his skull that had healed over prior to his death.

Most historical records are about well off people, so this line of research is interesting in “humanising people in the past, getting beyond the scientific facts to see them as individuals with life stories and experiences,” according to Robb.

“It [also] helps us imagine them ourselves as leading complex lives like we do today. That’s why putting all the data together into biographies and giving them faces is so important.”

I afforded myself a bit of a wry smile as I realised that these scientists were, albeit with a bit more basis, doing exactly what I was doing with the woman in the car behind me, and making up a story of a life from a little bit of evidence.

I watched her for the duration of the queue and came to the conclusion that she must have had some good news or had a pretty good day / yesterday causing her to be looking forward to what was coming and that was what was causing her mind to wander.  Of course, I’ll never know what her story really is, but it’s still fun trying to work it out.

High school seemed like such a blur,
I didn’t have much interest in sports or school elections.
And in class I dreamed all day,
Of a rock ‘n’ roll weekend

And the girl in the front of the room,
So close yet so far y’know she never seemed to notice
That this silly schoolboy crush
Wasn’t just pretend.

Life goes by so fast
You only want to do what you think is right.
Close your eyes and then it’s past;
Story of my life

And I went down my old neighborhood
The faces have all changed there’s no one left to talk to
And the pool hall I loved as a kid
Is now a Seven Eleven

I went downtown to look for a job
I had no training, no experience to speak of.
I looked at the holes in my jeans
And turned and headed back.

Good times come and good times go,
I only wish the good times would last a little longer.
I think about the good times we had
And why they had to end.

So I sit at the edge of my bed
I strum my guitar and I sing an outlaw love song.
Thinkin’ ’bout what you’re doin’ now
And when you’re comin’ back.

Story Of My Life by Social Distortion

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