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‘Bradford Tooth Fairy’ Solves Mystery of Medieval Priest Teeth

‘Bradford Tooth Fairy’ Solves Mystery of Medieval Priest Teeth

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The ‘Bradford Tooth Fairy,’ a dentist turned forensic archaeologist, created a new method to discover details of ancient diets, just by looking at people’s teeth. She’s now applied her innovative technique to discover the secrets held within a collection of 800-year-old bones and teeth, providing a ‘startling history’ on the lives of Medieval priests.

The Only Human Remains Found at St Stephen’s Chapel

The ‘Beaumont Method,’ named after its creator, Dr. Julia Beaumont (the Bradford Tooth Fairy), enabled the former dentist of 30 years to solve a puzzle surrounding mismatched bone fragments from nine individuals - the only human remains to have been recovered from St Stephen’s Chapel, which lies beneath the Palace of Westminster.

Dr. Julia Beaumont, the Bradford Tooth Fairy, has unraveled the ‘startling history’ behind 800-year-old Medieval priests’ teeth. (Telegraph & Argus)

A University of Bradford press release states that Dr. Beaumont re-examined “two shoebox-sized collections” of mismatched bones which have been sitting on a shelf at the Museum of London since 1992. The human remains were discovered under the Palace of Westminster in 1992 by the Museum of London Archaeology Services (MoLAS), now called Museum of London Archaeology (MoLA). According to the university’s press release, Dr. Beaumont has created a ‘startling history’ of the stories behind the bones.

They were found at a site that was once St Stephen’s Chapel, which was originally part of the Palace of Westminster. Work on the two-story chapel began with Edward I in 1292 and was completed by Edward III in 1348.

Plan of the Palace of Westminster, with the position of the St Stephen’s Chapel site in red. (Beaumont, J. et al, Archaeometry 2021)

Bradford Tooth Fairy Casts Light on the Lives of Medieval Priests

An osteological examination of the bones, which includes some jawbones and teeth, provided their approximate age and showed that they came from at least nine men. According to Telegraph & Argus, the remains are believed to have been removed from their original resting places.

When the Bradford Tooth Fairy examined thin sections of the teeth she developed an astonishingly detailed description of each individual’s diet - including the foods they ate, when they consumed them, and even the amount of time they had been breastfed as babies. This information is now published in the journal Archaeometry.

The maxillae and mandibles which were analyzed from the St Stephen's assemblage. (Beaumont, J. et al, Archaeometry 2021)

By combining her analysis with radiocarbon dates provided by Dr. Cathy Batt and Dr. Sam Harris from University of Bradford, as well as the pathological study by Jelena Bekvalac of the Museum of London, Dr. Beaumont has provided a glimpse into the lives of the people who left behind these bones. The most exciting discovery is that several of the bone fragments appear to have come from men who joined the priesthood during their childhood. 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.”

More explanation is provided in the research paper, in which Dr. Beaumont writes, that “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.” Her analysis shows that “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.”

Furthermore, Dr. Beaumont writes that she found “[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.”

The New Beaumont Method

As mentioned above, Dr. Beaumont created a new method for tooth analysis – the Beaumont Method. This technique involves the extraction of tiny sections of collagen, which are analyzed to find changes in carbon and nitrogen isotopes. By analyzing these chemicals, Dr. Beaumont discovered what people ate during different periods of their life. She found that each 1mm section pertains to roughly nine months of a person’s life and stated:

“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.”

Dr. Beaumont says, “In some ways, teeth are like trees, in that as they grow, they lay down successive layers, which are then mineralised by the body.” (University of Bradford)

Why is Dr. Beaumont Called the Bradford Tooth Fairy?

Telegraph & Argus reports that Dr. Beaumont gained her nickname as the ‘Bradford Tooth Fairy’ not for her seemingly magical ability to extract information from ancient teeth, but because she has been collecting teeth with the Ethical Tissue bank and the Born in Bradford project. To date, the Bradford Tooth Fairy has collected over 200 donated teeth to study how the diets of modern children impact the isotopes found in their teeth.

An analysis of the modern teeth also has provided important information, namely that “The first 1,000 days of your life are very important,” according to Dr. Beaumont, who continued, “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.”

Dr. Beaumont hopes that these studies will help to assess and create interventions “which will ultimately improve people’s life chances and opportunities.”

Top Image: What did Medieval priests eat? Source: Public Domain

By Alicia McDermott

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Alicia McDermott holds degrees in Anthropology, Psychology, and International Development Studies and has worked in various fields such as education, anthropology, and tourism. Traveling throughout Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, and Ecuador, Alicia has focused much of her research on Andean cultures... Read More

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