You could read every piece of paper left from the English city of York in the Middle Ages–every tax roll, every parish register, every will–and almost never see the name of a woman. “The historical documents were written by men and about men,” Anne Grauer told the Chicago Archaeological Society recently, “as if there were no women there at all.” But Grauer, a Loyola biological anthropologist, knows where to find them: in the cemeteries.

Until recently archaeologists studied artifacts and ignored the skeletons of those who made them. Bones got little or no respect as a source of information about past cultures. But Grauer and her peers have helped change that. To piece together a true picture of long-ago life, she argues, you need all three kinds of evidence–documents, artifacts, and bones. Her forthcoming book on the health of medieval English women uses each to check and elaborate on the other two.

The church of Saint Helen-on-the-Walls served one of the poorest parishes in York from about 1100 until it was closed, around 1550. Its cemetery was excavated in the 1970s to make room for new housing. The York Archaeological Trust preserved the bones “in a beautiful and consistent way,” says Grauer, making them available “when this crazy graduate student from the States showed up.”

Grauer had taken an interest in the bones while she was still an undergrad, after reading an article about the excavation in Scientific American. Early in her graduate studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst she decided to focus on British material, pulled out the filed-away article, and contacted the director of the trust for permission to study the bones. She spent the early 1980s working with the trust’s 1,014 recognizable skeletons. When she started she thought that medieval York might have been a “population sink” like colonial Virginia or the Wild West–the kind of filthy and chaotic place whose disease and violence killed so many that it needed a constant stream of immigrants just to keep things going. Young men with few prospects in the countryside would’ve flocked to York to make good, and most of them would’ve died trying.

But this picture didn’t survive a close read of the bones. Of the 320 adult skeletons to which she could pin an age and sex, 150 were men and 170 were women. Their approximate ages at death didn’t fit the frontier pattern very well either. Men were most likely to die between the ages of 35 and 45, which doesn’t support the notion that they were showing up fresh from the farm in their early 20s and being done in by the shocks of urban squalor.

Still, it must have been a brutal, primitive world, right? After all, among Grauer’s more grisly finds was a skull with a sword-shaped hole in it. But that’s not quite what you’d think either. Around the edges of this horrific wound, a layer of smooth new bone had grown–indicating that the owner of the skull lived to tell about it, probably for years.

A systematic investigation showed that this spectacular case was typical. Grauer found a total of 41 long-bone fractures, 40 of which had healed years before the individual died, 25 without leaving any deformity. Four people had broken both forearm bones (radius and ulna). That’s one of the most difficult fractures to manage, yet as Grauer and colleague C.A. Roberts reported in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology in 1996, three of the four were “well healed with no deformity or osteoarthritis.” So in this impoverished parish more than 500 years ago, residents appear to have had access to bonesetters (documented in continental Europe but not in England) and to the nursing care they would’ve needed while their fractures healed. If York had really been a chaotic and lethal place, more of its injured residents would’ve died while convalescing.

The perception of the town as some lawless hell, Grauer adds, is just the sort of unexamined assumption that people in her line of work need to be aware of. It’s representative of the way researchers can project contemporary ideas of capitalism and individualism onto their subjects. “Most cultures don’t function that way,” she points out. “We revere the individual. They revered family and community. You had an extended community around you.”

In other words, bones don’t speak for themselves–what they say depends on the questions we ask them. And the more conscious you are of your assumptions, the better your questions. “It’s all about the questions,” Grauer says. “I’m so into science because I have so many questions, not because I have the answers. There are always new questions and new ways to look at it.”

Grauer has found feminism to be a useful tool in revealing notions we take for granted, but it can generate misleading assumptions as well. When people hear about the fracture study, they invariably ask if there were many injuries from spouse abuse, she says. “We tend to think that if a woman is injured, it has to be a man who did it. But there’s some work in cultural anthropology suggesting that [in medieval times] tensions between daughters and mothers-in-law were much more likely to lead to violence.”

Grauer’s disgusted with forensic TV shows like Bones, in which last fall a detective deduced from a victim’s bones that she’d played tennis. Bones can’t reveal their owner’s occupation or hobbies, she says–they can only supply clues. A lifetime of heavy labor, for example, wears away the cushion of cartilage at the joints, leading to bone-on-bone wear. Centuries later Grauer can still see where the rubbing bones have painfully polished each other.

Knowing that, and suspecting medieval documents of harboring male bias, you can ask, as Grauer did, what the skeletons from Saint Helen-on-the-Walls have to say about women’s work. She compared the joints of men and women aged 18 to 25 and found them worn equally, and hard. “We know that women were more likely to be household laborers or brewers–things that might not show up on tax rolls or produce artifacts archaeologists can find. But it was still strenuous, tough going. They contributed to city life.” Men, though, had more broken bones.

Even Saint Helen-on-the-Walls’s unusually large collection of skeletons can’t tell every story. The graveyard was so crowded that it’s likely impossible to know when any given person was buried–so in effect Grauer is working with a composite portrait spanning more than four centuries. A given fracture could’ve been set during the reign of Henry I or Henry VIII.

The past remains beyond our reach in another way too: today’s obvious conclusion can become tomorrow’s conundrum. Professionals used to consider that a skeleton without infection or breakage represented a healthy person. “If someone’s immune system is weakened, they can die of a bacterial or viral infection very quickly,” says Grauer–in other words, before disease can leave any visible mark on the bone. “Were they healthy, or did they just die too fast?”

Grauer’s been working with the York skeletons for more than 20 years. She’s not surprised to find herself still on the project. “Each new answer comes packaged with a hundred new questions to ask and directions to follow,” she says. “I’ll probably end my research when I join them six feet underground.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Carlos J. Ortiz.