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Technique day before death

Technique gives insight into day before death

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A scientist from the University of Southern Denmark has developed a technique which can reveal an unprecedented amount of detail relating to the time shortly before a person’s death .  The new methodology has the potential to reveal new information about the life and death of our ancient ancestors.

Unlike previous methods of analysing bone content, the technique, developed by chemist Kaare Lund Rasmussen and colleagues, involves extracting information from the soil surrounding the remains of an individual.  The technique offers a greater level of accuracy for while the bones can provide information about exposure to a particular chemical ten to three years prior to death, soil analysis can give insights into the last months and even days before death.

"When the body decays in the grave a lot of compounds are released to the surrounding soil – by far most of them organic compounds. Also most of the inorganic elements are transformed to other compounds and later removed by the percolating groundwater throughout the centuries that follows. If we can localize an element in the soil in the immediate vicinity of the skeleton which is not normally found in the soil itself, we can assume that it came from the deceased and this can tell us something about how the person lived. We are not interested in death, but in the life before death", Kaare Lund Rasmussen explains.

Rasmussen and his team used the technique to analyse the soil surrounding the body of a 10-13 year old child who was buried in the medieval town of Ribe in Denmark 800 years ago, with surprising results. They found that the child had been given a large dose of mercury, probably in an attempt to cure a severe illness. Moreover, as the half-life of mercury varies between the different tissue types of the body, it is possible to ascertain when the body was last exposed to mercury prior to death.

"I cannot say which diseases the child had contracted. But I can say that it was exposed to a large dose of mercury a couple of months before its death and again a day or two prior to death. You can imagine what happened: that the family for a while tried to cure the child with mercury containing medicine which may or may not have worked, but that the child's condition suddenly worsened and that it was administered a large dose of mercury which was, however, not able to save its life", said Rasmussen

Mercury is of particular interest for the archaeologists as many cultures in different part of the world have been in contact with this rare element.  In medieval Europe mercury was used for centuries in the colour pigment cinnabar, which was used for illuminating manuscripts by medieval monks, and since Roman times mercury was widely used as the active ingredient in medicine administered against a variety of diseases.

"Mercury is extremely toxic and surely some died from mercury poisoning and not the ailment it was meant to cure. Treatment with mercury was practiced well into the 1900's, where for instance the Danish novelist Karen Blixen (Seven Gothic Tales) received treatment in 1914", said Rasmussen.

Kaare Lund Rasmussen and his colleagues have now used their newly developed sampling technique on soil samples from 19 medieval burials in cemeteries throughout Denmark. However, the technique offers a huge opportunity for archaeologists worldwide.

By April Holloway

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