Leicester Cathedral Revealed – Discovering more about John Wilson Ottey (1810 – 1851)

Taylor Peacock

Over a year ago, we learnt about John Wilson Ottey (1810-1851) and uncovered what historical records can tell us about his life. John Ottey, one of a few of the named dead excavated from Leicester Cathedral, is well documented in newspapers for his youthful indiscretions. However, his death, many years later, marked him as a “much respected” citizen in those same papers. Now, osteologist Taylor Peacock gives us some insights about what his bones can say about his life.

As one of the osteologists on the Leicester Cathedral Revealed project, I first examined John Ottey’s remains in May 2023. Once I knew his name, I reassessed him in January this year. As an osteologist, I am perpetually fascinated by how two sets of evidence tell different stories. When I first assessed John Ottey, he was an unknown person whom I examined carefully to try and glean a little about his life.

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First, I laid out all his bones on the bench and then began to record what was there and what was not. In the case of John Ottey, most of his ribs and his spine were missing because the structure of his coffin meant that his nameplate crushed his chest as the coffin collapsed over time. Any archaeologist will tell you that preserving artifacts and people is a complex mix of the soil type and its Ph value (for example, whether it is clay, sandy, or a bog), water table, temperature, and the burial container itself. If someone is buried in a wooden coffin, they will be preserved differently than in a stone-lined grave. One of the most famous examples is Lindow Man, a bog body recovered from Northwest England. Bog bodies are the opposite of skeletal remains; the skin and hair are often preserved, but the bones are not, caused by the unique mix of Ph in the soil and the temperature.

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From there, I systematically examined his bones for a few different things. Bones tell stories about who the person was in their life in a different way to the newspapers and other records. We examine the teeth and the pelvis to look at their age; the older an individual is, the more often their teeth will be worn down, and the part of the pelvis (auricular surface) that connects to the tailbone (sacrum) will show age-related changes. In my initial assessment of John Ottey, his auricular surface and pubic symphysis were too damaged to provide an assessment beyond adulthood. In this case, however, his death records gave us his age (40 years old). We also look for pathologies – evidence of disease and health throughout their life. Cavities and missing teeth speak to a carbohydrate-rich diet and poor oral health. As part of the Tobacco, History and Health project, we are particularly interested in whether people were smokers in the past, looking for pipe notches in teeth and evidence of staining. John Ottey had very little evidence of tobacco use, though his right canine and incisor were worn in such a way that suggested he may have smoked a pipe.

Another thing we look for is evidence of trauma. Broken bones that have healed are evidence of various forms of trauma that one sustains throughout their life. Fractures to the lower wrist, colloquially called ‘Colle’s fractures’, occur when a person falls and puts their hand out to catch themselves. In contrast, fractures to the fifth metacarpal (pinkie finger) most often occur when someone hits a surface with a closed fist. While many from Leicester Cathedral show evidence of trauma, John Ottey does not. His occupation, however, does help make sense of the joint changes I saw in his knees. Ridges had formed around the edge of the articular surface, suggesting that the cartilage had been worn away. As a plumber and glazier, John Ottey would have spent time crawling and working on his knees, and such changes thus make sense.

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The last data set that osteologists collect is measurements from long bones to estimate someone’s height. Like in the doctor’s office, height helps us understand various things, such as the difference between actual and expected growth in childhood or the average heights of a community. Measurements are taken from long bones such as the femur (thigh bone) and tibia (shin bone) and then run through a series of formulas to calculate height. In this case, John’s femur and tibia were measured together, from which we got a height of 180.1 centimeters, approximately five feet eleven inches, this is taller than average for the time.

Working on named individuals is an immense privilege. From his bones, I could see that John Ottey was a male and an adult with some changes in his knees and relatively good teeth. He might have smoked, though the evidence for smoking in his teeth is relatively mild and less conclusive. He was of slightly above average height for the time, but not particularly tall. From historical records, we know that he was forty and had an occupation that meant working on his hands and his knees in keeping with what the bones say. Rarely do we have such confirmatory evidence to make sense of the bony changes we see. As I go through the rest of the Leicester Cathedral individuals (and especially those that are named), the history of Leicester, as experienced by those who lived during that time, will become ever more fascinating.

Taylor Peacock is an honorary fellow working on the University of Leicester’s Tobacco Health and History project. She is a Phd student in osteoarchaeology at the University of Cambridge.

You can find out more about the Tobacco Health and History project by watching this talk by Dr Anna Davies-Barratt, “Who smokes anymore? Investigating past impacts of tobacco consumption using osteoarchaeological and biomolecular approaches”

The Leicester Cathedral Revealed project has been made possible thanks to the National Lottery Heritage Fund and National Lottery players. Find out more about the project at https://leicestercathedral.org/

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