At some moment in the 15th or 16th century, a man clad in thigh-high leathers boots ventured down to London's river Thames and never returned. Covered by mud for centuries, his remains were only recently exposed during excavations of a new "super sewer" public works project.

Remarkably, those well-preserved boots were found still clinging to his leg bones.

"It’s extremely rare to find any boots from the late 15th century, let alone a skeleton still wearing them," Beth Richardson of the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA), told NatGeo. "And these are very unusual boots for the period — thigh boots, with the tops turned down. They would have been expensive, and how this man came to own them is a mystery. Were they secondhand? Did he steal them? We don't know."

The deep grooves discovered in the teeth of the deceased appear to indicate that he may have been a fisherman. The deep grooves discovered in the teeth of the deceased appear to indicate that he may have been a fisherman. (Photo: MOLArchaeology/YouTube screenshot)

What the archaeologists do know judging by the bones is that the man was about 35 years old, powerfully-built, and likely perished prematurely. Deep grooves in his teeth, indicative of rope passing between his teeth, suggest he may have made a living as a fisherman.

"It’s not unusual to find burials on the foreshore, but the booted man’s position was unusual: face-down, with one arm above his head with the other bent back on itself to the side," the archaeology team revealed in a statement. "These clues could suggest that he fell or drowned and was covered quickly by the ground as it moved with the tide."

Boots made to last

Because leather was a highly-prized material during the medieval period, the archaeologists believe the man suffered an accidental death.

"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," they speculate. "Could he have been a fisherman, a mudlark or perhaps a sailor?"

The boots, which may have functioned as waders, were well-made with reinforced soles and stuffing (possibly moss) for either insulation or an improved fit.

The researchers will next perform an isotope analysis to gauge everything from the man's diet to whether or not he was a native Londoner or some unfortunate tourist.

"We may never know the answer to exactly how the booted man came to rest in the river, but his untimely death has offered an incredible opportunity to learn from him: to explore the relationships between the people of London in the past and the river Thames and how this dangerous and powerful natural resource was used by so many as a means of making a living," they add.

Michael d'Estries ( @michaeldestries ) covers science, technology, art, and the beautiful, unusual corners of our incredible world.

Medieval skeleton with thigh-high leather boots found in Thames
The 500-year-old remains of a fisherman or sailer with thigh-high leather boots were uncovered in the Thames during an excavation project.