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How Bradford ‘Tooth Fairy’ solved mystery of 800-year-old Westminster bones

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Cross section of a human tooth

New technique enables scientists detailed look at Medieval lives

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 which 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.

Startling history

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.

The bones had been on a shelf at the Museum of London since 1992 but have now begun to tell a startling story.

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.

‘Tooth Fairy’

Dr Beaumont is also known affectionately as the ‘Bradford Tooth Fairy’ because she has been collecting children’s teeth for a number of years with the Ethical Tissue bank, and some as part of the Born in Bradford project.

She said: “At least two of the individuals looked like they started out as lay children and then went into the priesthood. 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 1mm section represents about nine months of life.

Dr Beaumont explained: “Bones represent at best the last five years of your life but teeth record everything from childhood to early adulthood. 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.”

High status

In the past, Dr Beaumont has also used the technique to examine the teeth of children who lived during the Irish famine (1845-52) and was able to see the transition between when the children were starving and when they ate maize and became healthy again

Her findings are published in journal Archaeometry under the title: Identifying cohorts using isotope mass spectrometry: the potential of temporal resolution and dietary profiles.

The research paper states: “Higher trophic levels in later life… may be the result of a career in the service of the church and/or the king; in the Medieval period, high trophic level foods were generally consumed by higher status individuals.

“Three of the individuals from St Stephen’s demonstrate this shift between the dentine formed in their childhood and adolescence and the later-forming bone, suggesting that there was a common difference between the diet of juveniles and adults during these periods, or that the physiological effect of growth is affecting the recorded (isotopes) in the collagen.

“[Two of these] appear to have had relatively similar dietary life histories with low trophic-level foods in their childhoods, and a rise to a higher status diet at the age of about seven. This could be related to their education, or training for a clerical career and is consistent with a study of individuals at two friaries in northern England who show similar dietary shifts.”

Historic puzzle

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).

Life chances

Dr Beaumont, who practised as a dentist for 30 years, came to do a Master’s degree at Bradford in 2007, and a PhD in 2013 and ended up moving into academia. As her alter ego, the Bradford Tooth Fairy, she has collected over 200 donated teeth from children across the district to study how the diets of modern children are recorded in the isotopes.

She said: “The first 1,000 days of your life are very important. For example, research has shown that low birth-weight babies are more likely to be obsese adults and have heart disease, and that those who are breastfed are likely to be taller and have a better educational attainment. 

“What we hope to be able to do, based on our findings about diet, is to design assessment and interventions which will ultimately improve people’s life chances and opportunities.”

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