Medieval bone fragments discovered beneath the Palace of Westminster in 1992 have finally given up their astonishing story, thanks to a University of Bradford lecturer.
Dr Julia Beaumont, a former dentist of 30 years turned forensic archaeologist, developed a new technique that enables scientists to more accurately look at a person’s diet through an examination of their teeth. Now that technique – which has become known as the ‘Beaumont Method’ – has been used to solve an 800-year-old puzzle.
Dr Beaumont, from the School of Archaeology and Forensic Sciences in the Faculty of Life Sciences, was asked to re-examine two shoebox-sized collections of mismatched bone fragments from nine individuals – they are the only human remains recovered from the historically significant medieval site of St Stephen’s Chapel, beneath the Palace of Westminster.
By examining micro-thin sections of the teeth, Dr Beaumont was able to discover much about the diet of each person, including what they ate and when, and even how long each was breastfed for as a child. Coupled with radiocarbon dates interpreted by Dr Cathy Batt and Dr Sam Harris from University of Bradford, and a re-examination for pathology by Jelena Bekvalac of the Museum of London, her findings have helped shed new light on the bones and their owners.
It is now believed that some of the fragments belonged to men who were inducted into the priesthood during childhood, as evidenced by a sudden improvement in their diet. “At least two of the individuals looked like they started out as lay children and then went into the priesthood,” Dr Beaumont explains. “We see evidence of a better diet, especially fish. This technique enables us to gain additional information about a person’s life, what they were eating and doing during their childhood and in the years before their death.”
The Beaumont Method extracts tiny sections of collagen from teeth and then looks for changes in the ratio of carbon and nitrogen isotopes to determine what a person ate during the period of tooth development. Typically, each millimetre section represents about nine months of life.
“Bones represent at best the last five years of your life but teeth record everything from childhood to early adulthood,” adds Dr. Beaumont. “We can see famine through changes where the body is recycling its own tissues, changes in diet, people who have migrated from one place to another. In some ways, teeth are like trees, in that as they grow, they lay down successive layers, which are then mineralised by the body. This happens during the period of tooth formation and into early adulthood. It’s fascinating to be able to discover the possible life stories of people who died 800 years ago, just by looking at their teeth.”
The remains were first found in 1992 and included various bones, including jaw bones, some with teeth and some without. Osteological examination determined their approximate age, that they were all male and that they came from a minimum of nine separate people. It is thought the remains were moved from their original resting place and at some point redeposited beneath the chapel.
St Stephen’s Chapel, now underneath the larger House of Commons, was originally part of the Palace of Westminster in London. The building was linked to the quarters of the Plantagenet kings of England, and first mentioned in 1184. In 1292, Edward I began a new two-storey chapel, which was completed by Edward III when a new college of canons was established in 1348.
The “commingled” bones were discovered during building works in 1992 by the Museum of London Archaeology Services (MoLAS) now Museum of London Archaeology (MoLA).
The article, “Identifying Cohorts Using Isotope Mass Spectrometry: The Potential of Temporal Resolution and Dietary Profiles,” by Julia Beaumont, Jelena Bekvalac, Samuel Harris and Catherine M. Batt, is published in Archaeometry. Click here to read it.
Top Image: Courtesy University of Bradford