Connecting the dots: analysing skeletal remains with limited context

Who was buried beneath St Stephen's Chapel in the Palace of Westminster?

As every archaeologist knows, when it comes to being able to reconstruct the past, context is key – particularly in terms of skeletal remains, which do not have the benefit of specific typologies. But what happens with human remains from an uncertain context? Must they remain forever anonymous? In this month’s ‘Science Notes’, we examine a paper, recently published in Archaeometry (, which has used scientific tools to try to reconstruct the lives of five individuals for whom no secure burial context existed.

The individuals analysed as part of the study were from an assemblage of bones found during excavation beneath St Stephen’s Chapel in the Palace of Westminster in 1992. The bones were commingled and had suffered severe post-mortem damage from the burial environment. It was hypothesised that these remains may represent the residents of a secular college that was established at the chapel during the 14th century, but, with no grave goods or other contextual evidence present, this was mainly a guess based on their general location.

above Dr Julia Beaumont at work in her lab examining tooth samples.
Dr Julia Beaumont at work in her lab examining tooth samples. Photo: University of Bradford.

To find out more about these bones they were first assessed osteologically, which determined that there were at least nine individuals present. A few possible pathologies, such as rickets and sinusitis, were identified, but very little else could be determined. For decades, these bones then sat in storage until a team led by Julia Beaumont from the University of Bradford decided to learn more about these individuals by carrying out an extensive scientific analysis.

The team focused on the five mandibles/maxillae that could be identified from the collection, as teeth can offer a wealth of information. First, collagen was extracted from the bones for radiocarbon dating, as well as for carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis to determine diet during adulthood. Isotopic analysis of the teeth was also carried out, examining four tooth samples (one mandible did not have any teeth present) incrementally. Since teeth are formed in layers during specific periods of development, by examining each layer of a tooth (starting from the crown down to the root), isotopic levels can be examined on a yearly basis so that even small shifts in diet/nutrition during childhood can be identified.

The results proved to be incredibly informative. Accounting for the marine reservoir effect, which can make radiocarbon dates seem artificially old (see ‘Science Notes’ in CA 366), the results showed that the five analysed individuals most likely came from two distinct periods: the first three were dated to between AD 1280 and 1420, while the other two individuals dated to between AD 1400 and 1530. Notably, all fell within the period when the St Stephen’s Chapel secular college was functioning.

This difference in date was also reflected in the isotopic results. The three earlier individuals were found to have a diet that varied between childhood and adulthood, and two in particular shared very similar dietary histories. These were defined by a low-trophic level diet in their formative years (which means a diet somewhat devoid of meat and fish) followed by a sharp rise to a higher-trophic level diet around the age of seven, including an increase in marine food. The last individual from this period also saw an increase to a higher-trophic level diet during adulthood, but without the subsequent increase in marine fish. Unlike the first two individuals, this person’s childhood appears to have been defined by periods of physiological stress. Overall, these results seem to be consistent with lay individuals who may have entered into a monastic life as children and subsequently gained access to a higher-status diet. This is a pattern that has been seen in other medieval monastic communities, particularly in terms of the heavily marine-based diet.

In contrast, the diets of the two individuals from the later period were much less variable. One individual appears to have had a high-trophic level marine-rich diet throughout child- and adulthood. For the last individual, no teeth were present, so the childhood diet could not be identified, but the bone isotope results showed that their adult diet was rich in marine foods, while the fact that their teeth had been carefully extracted during life suggests that they had access to dental treatment.

While not completely definitive, the results suggest that all analysed individuals enjoyed a high-status diet during adulthood, which would be consistent with people who worked in the palace in a religious role. This would appear to confirm the idea that they may have been associated with the secular college that was active at St Stephen’s Chapel between 1348 and 1548 – finally filling in some aspects of the life stories of these individuals, who might otherwise have remained entirely unknown.