LONDON — Britons fishing or scavenging in the River Thames in central London are a rare sight these days.
But in medieval times, the river was teeming with workers toiling along its banks. The 500-year-old skeleton of a man believed to be among them has been found buried in layers of river mud in southeast London, offering a glimpse of a bygone era.
Perhaps most intriguing, what remained of his legs was discovered in a pair of thigh-high leather boots — unusual even for his time. Specialists say the man could have been a fisherman, a dock worker or a mudlark — a scavenger who hunted for objects of value by the river.
The discovery this summer was announced this week in a statement by MOLA Headland, the firm that led digs on the site of an infrastructure project costing 4.2 billion pounds, or more than $5.3 billion.
“By studying the boots, we’ve been able to gain a fascinating glimpse into the daily life of a man who lived as many as 500 years ago,” Beth Richardson, a specialist with MOLA Headland, said in the statement.
The boots would have been useful for treading knee-deep in the sticky mud of the Thames. They were not fancy, lacking heels or buckles, Ms. Richardson told The Guardian.
“We never find high boots like this — they are always shoes or ankle boots,” she said. “High boots are just not very common throughout medieval times.”
The man is believed to have been at least 35 years old when he died, but his bones revealed that he probably led a painful life because of stiffness in his joints caused by osteoarthritis, experts said. His teeth show deep grooves caused by a repetitive action, possibly because of passing a material like rope between his teeth, as fishermen often did.
While river banks were a common choice for burials, experts discovered this skeleton face down, suggesting that the man may have died after a fall. Leather was very valuable at the time — and made to last — so it seems unlikely that the boots would have been buried with their owner.
“The river was a hazardous place even in the late 15th century, so perhaps his occupation was the cause of his death and the reason he came to be discovered,” the MOLA Headland statement said.
The discovery was made on the construction site of the Thames Tideway Tunnel, a project for a sewage tunnel that will run 15 miles along the Thames to capture waste water that is currently overflowing into the river.
Another megaproject has turned up archaeological treasures in London recently: Crossrail, a train line crossing the city, including through a new tunnel, that is set to open next year. Workers have dug through many layers of the British capital’s history, including Victorian foundations and sewers, and Roman suburbs.
Last year, the Museum of London exhibited some of the artifacts found during digging and construction for the Crossrail project. They included some 3,000 items found in ancient burial sites and a Victorian chamber pot bearing the inscription, “Oh what I see I will not tell.”
As for the man who died in his leather boots 500 years ago, MOLA Headland is working to conserve the skeleton and the shoes, which have become very fragile since they were extracted from the mud, Nicola Kalimeris, a spokeswoman for the practice, said.
There are no immediate plans to put them on display.