Boxes of bones on a shelf at the Museum of London since 1992 have revealed a telling tale, thanks to the help of Dr Julia Beaumont, from the University of Bradford.
Dr Beaumont, a former dentist of 30 years turned forensic archaeologist, re-examine two shoebox-sized collections of mismatched bone fragments.
The boxes contained bones from nine individuals who were 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, the academic 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.
Results revealed 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.
“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," Dr Beaumont, 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."
The former dentist is 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.
As part of her recent investigation Dr Beaumont used her own 'Beaumont Method' which she invented to extract tiny sections of collagen from teeth.
She then looked 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."
Previously the remains were discovered 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.
Bradford tooth fairy
Dr Beaumont, who practised as a dentist for 30 years, made the switch to academia in 2007.
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 obese 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.”
Previously Dr Beaumont has also used her Beaumont Method 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.
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