Monday, 8 April 2013

Size Matters

Size Matters

A perennial statement we hear from members of the public, is the belief that folk long ago we smaller than we are today. Most are very surprised to learn that our Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian ancestors were no smaller than us and that some of the warrior class were tall and strong, even by today's standard. In the light of this it is worth briefly examining how we are so certain of this fact and why there is such a widespread misconception regarding stature.

The height of an individual is determined by both genetic and environmental factors. The genetic background (if the parents were tall or short) determines the potential height that individual may achieve under optimal conditions. Of course, average height in a population varies between racial groups. Genes determine about 90% of a human being’s height but their actual height is influenced by environmental factors to around 10%. So, an individual who has the genetic potential to be 6 feet tall (1.83m.) may do so only if he enjoys a childhood free from serious disease, stress and malnutrition. Where children and adolescents are chronically malnourished, exposed to the chronic stress of war or subject to debilitating chronic disease, stature can be significantly stunted. It is clear, then, that stature is an excellent marker for the standard of living and general well-being of a population.

Thegns Early Anglo-Saxon Burial Display

It is possible to estimate the height of an individual from their skeletal remains with a fair degree of accuracy. Laying the skeleton out gives only a rough idea but the best, most reliable method entails measuring the length of certain long-bones. These are among the most robust parts of a skeleton, so tend to survive well even in less than optimal soil conditions. Studies of living people have provided extensive data concerning correlation between long-bone lengths and stature. Using these tables, a simple equation (derived from linear regression) can be used to determine the likely stature of an individual skeleton in life, merely by measuring the length of a particular long-bone.

For example: if a femur is 50cm. long, the calculation would be 2.32 x 50 x 65.53, giving an estimated height of 181.53cm (almost 6 feet!).

Of course, the individual could have been a little taller or shorter and this uncertainty (resulting from variation from person to person; everyone is a little bit different) is known as ‘error’. The effect of error can be minimised by estimating the height using a number of the available long-bones and then averaging out.

The tables are different for males and females and, importantly, are only consistent within the confines of a particular ethnic group.

The estimation of children’s heights from their skeletal remains is more problematic. Firstly, children’s bones are less robust and, unless soil conditions are benign (rarely the case in the UK), are often degraded and incomplete. Secondly, until the bones fuse when growth ceases, children’s longbones fragment into separate epiphysis and diaphysis, which makes measurements less exact.

How Tall were the Anglo-Saxons?

The average Anglo-Saxon male would have stood around 5 feet 8 inches tall (172cm). This compares with the present day average male height of 5 feet 9 inches (175cm) in England. The average Anglo-Saxon female would have been about 5 feet 3 inches tall (160cm); only slightly shorter than the average height of women in the England today; 5 feet 4½ inches tall (164cm).

Anglo-Saxon graves being excavated at Twyford (cc Wessex Archaeology)

In “Warrior Graves?” 1990, Heinrich Härke discussed the fact that, in early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries, individuals buried with weapons were , on average, between 1-2 inches (2-5cm.) taller than individuals buried without weapons. The shorter skeletons had shown no overt signs of nutritional stress, so he concluded that this difference might be ethno-genetic, i.e. the weapon-folk were Anglo-Saxons and the non-weapon folk were Romano-Britons.
This is an interesting suggestion but it might well be that the difference was purely a social selection effect, i.e. bigger men were more likely to become warriors, just like the selection pressure for basket-ball tends to favour tall individuals!

How tall were the 'Vikings'?
Contemporary writers often described the Norse raiders as very tall.
In his famous account of meeting the Rus, a group of Swedish Vikings, the Arab Ibn Fadlan describes their physique:
"I have seen the Rus as they came on their merchant journeys and encamped by the Volga. I have never seen more perfect physical specimens, tall as date palms, blonde and ruddy..."
European observers made similar observations but then they were only seeing a select group of warriors, who would have been selected for size and fitness.

'Viking' Burial of a 30-year-old male from Orkney (cc National Museum of Scotland)
Extensive surveys of Viking-Age burials across Scandinavia have confirmed that the average height was only a little less than today. The average height for a man was about 5 feet 8 inches (172 cm) and that of a woman was 5 feet 2½ inches (159 cm.) However, skeletons of people over 6 feet tall were not uncommon. As with the Anglo-Saxons, in richly furnished Viking graves, the bodies were considerably taller than in poorer inhumations. This was ascribed to differences in nutrition but may well have been self-selection.

Comparison with other Eras

The average height of a Romano-Briton would have been 5 feet 6½ (169 cm.) inches for men and 5 feet 2 inches (158cm.) for women. It is thought that this was largely due to genetic factors rather than nutritional deficiency. Due to the influx of taller Germanic folk, the average height of inhabitants of England increased rapidly to the measurements mentioned earlier, but this seems to have declined following the Norman Conquest, primarily due to poorer nutrition. Men living in England during the 12th-13th centuries had an average height of 5ft 6 inches (168cm) although this improved to around 5ft 7inches (170cm.) during the 13th-14th centuries.

There seems little doubt that this fall of average height was the result of deliberate policy of the Norman overlords to keep the English subjugated by semi-starvation and crippling taxation and it was this ‘Norman Yoke’ which led to the reduction of average height during the first century of foreign rule.
To add to this, must be added the long-term impact of William the Bastard’s ‘Harrowing of the North’. Within three years of Hastings, rebellion against Norman rule flared in Northumbria and in Mercia. Leaving his earls to subdue the West Country, William rode north and spent three years in genocidal slaughter, burning whole villages and (according to the contemporary historian Orderic Vitalis) put as many as 100,000 to the sword. He also destroyed crops, food-stores and livestock so comprehensively that the few survivors were reduced to starvation and cannibalism. Mercia fared little better than Yorkshire and large portions of Staffordshire, Cheshire, Shropshire and Derbyshire were devastated so thoroughly that when Domesday was compiled, in 1086, there were still many totally depopulated areas simply marked ‘wasteas est’. The systematic genocide and subsequent malnutrition of the Anglo-Norse population most likely stunted height for generations. Furthermore, the depopulation of previously fertile areas and the alleged poisoning of the soil in these areas may well have damaged the food economy for many, many years. It would be fair to say, that during this period, our ancestors were indeed shorter, although, as previously mentioned, nutrition did gradually improve in following centuries.

"I look up to him, because he is 'Upper Class' "
During the 17th-18th centuries average male height dropped again, to a low of 5 feet 5 inches and did not really begin to increase again until the early 19th century. This decline coincides with the so-called ‘industrial revolution’, probably due to rapid population growth outstripping the food supply, a sudden drop in the quality of diets for newly urbanised populations, and terrible living conditions for the workers slaving in the factories. In early 19th century England, increased economic inequality led to a staggering average 8½ inch (22cm) difference in average height between the upper class and the lower class, whereas the difference in height between an Anglo-Saxon thegn and a lowly gebur (peasant) would have been a couple of inches at most. The average Victorian worker was only 5 feet five inches tall, his stature stunted by a low protein diet and a toxic environment.

From height evidence alone, it would seem that our 'Dark Age' ancestors were surprisingly well nourished and achieved relatively good health, particularly compared to their descendants in the Medieval period, or the Victorian working classes. How could they have achieved this?

How did the Anglo-Saxons have it so good?
The Anglo-Saxons lived largely in quite dispersed, self-sufficient rural communities at fairly low population densities. Particularly in the pre-Viking era, warfare consisted of little more than inter-tribal raiding, performed by small groups of professional warriors. War-stress would thus have been minimal. Of course, crops could fail and cattle die, but large swathes of surrounding undeveloped wilderness provided a buffer against starvation; famine-foods from the forest (such as acorns and beech-mast) were available, and hunting of game was always an option to provide protein. Vegetable crops grown would have been rich in nutrients, and free land was in relatively plentiful supply. Further, disease was less of a concern than in the mid and latter Middle-Ages; the chances of serious epidemic disease in dispersed rural communities with minimal interaction would have been low. While not idyllic, life in Anglo-Saxon England, as shown by the stature of its folk, would not be so good until the present day.

Why do people assume that people were so much smaller in the past?
People tend to assume that, to paraphrase Hobbes, folk in the past lived lives that were ‘poor, nasty, brutish and short’ and that they themselves were short.
This idea is likely to have been picked up at school. Children are not taught about the relative richness of the Anglo-Saxon Age and Romans are thought to be short despite being, on average only an inch or two shorter than Northern Europeans. More tellingly, history has been taught as steady uninterrupted progress despite all evidence to the contrary. Strangely, the Vikings are always accepted to have been tall. In fact, the idea of folk in the past being smaller is as much a myth as the horns on the Viking helmet.
So, if we can demonstrate the size of an accurate replica Anglo-Saxon sword and the voluminous nature of an accurate replica Early English helmet, we will have gone some way to dispelling this myth.


My anatomy and anthropology lecturers at Liverpool Medical School, particularly Prof. R. G. Harrison and Mr R. Connolly.
‘Warrior Graves’ (1990) by Heinrich Härke
The invaluable ‘Viking Answer Lady’ Website.

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