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Archaeologists working on the Thames Tideway Tunnel in London discovered a male skeleton buried face-down in the mud—with a pair of in-situ thigh-high leather boots.

Currently under construction, the 16-mile passageway will capture, store, and transport combined raw sewage and rainwater discharges currently overflowing into the River Thames.

“The Tideway archaeology program has allowed us to gather really interesting new evidence for how Londoners have used the river throughout history,” Jack Russell, lead for Tidway, said in a statement.

Marks of human activity along the river—i.e. bridges, watermills, prehistoric burial mounds—date back to pre-Roman Britain. These days, rowing and sailing clubs, kayakers, and canoers can be seen on the Thames, which also hosts the annual Boat Race and Henley Royal Regatta.

But, as MOLA Headland Infrastructure pointed out, the river is a dangerous place, and our mysterious man—perhaps a fisherman or mudlark—could have fallen to his death. Or, in a more nefarious turn of events, may have been pushed.

“The discovery has sparked an investigation by a team of our archaeological and osteological experts who are unravelling the mystery of the booted man in the mud,” the consortium said.

Specialists have already dated the shoes to the late 15th or early 16th century, when leather was expensive and often re-used. Which rules out the idea that someone would have been buried in such a highly prized item.

A mysterious male skeleton was discovered lying face-down deep in the Thames mud, with a pair of in-situ thigh-high leather boots (via MOLA Headland)

On the other hand, the boots’ height would have made them ideal for wading through the river and sticky mud.

They were built to last, according to MOLA, which revealed that the footwear was reinforced with extra soles and stuffed with an “unidentified material” for added warmth or improved fit.

“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,” MOLA Headland Finds Specialist Beth Richardson said. “They have helped us to better understand how he may have made his living in hazardous and difficult conditions, but also how he may have died.

“It has been a privilege to be able to study something so rare and so personal,” she added.

There is no evidence (yet) of injuries or a cause of death.

Scientists, however, have determined the man was no older than 35 when he died, lived an active life, and suffered from osteoarthritis. Plus, deep grooves in his teeth suggest a repetitive action—like passing rope between his chompers, as a fisherman might.

“Studying a human skeleton provides incredible insights that allow us to create osteo-biographies of a person’s life,” Niamh Carty, human osteologist at MOLA Headland, said.

“With the booted man, examining his teeth has given clues about his childhood,” she explained. “And marks on his skeleton have allowed us to proffer ideas about the aches and pains he may have suffered from on a daily basis, the toll his job took on his body, and even a little about what he might have looked like.”

If I learned anything from Kinky Boots, it’s to never doubt a man in fabulous shoes.

“As we work toward our goal of cleaning up the Thames and reconnecting London with it,” Russell said, “it’s really important to acknowledge the lessons we can learn from significant discoveries like this.”

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