Hair as a Window on Diet and Health in Post-Medieval London: an isotopic analysis

Chloe Brown and Michelle AlexanderORCID logo*

Department of Archaeology, University of York, YO1 7EP, UK.
*Corresponding author:

Cite this as: Brown, C. and Alexander, M. 2016 Hair as a Window on Diet and Health in Post-Medieval London: an isotopic analysis, Internet Archaeology 42.

Attitudes to hair in 19th-century society support interpretations on the role of hair as a social and political tool, through the manipulation of personal appearance and the process of acquisition of hair itself (Ashby 2014). Hair was a significant symbol of 'consumer culture', used to express individual power and identity. Human hair was utilised for jewellery, wigs and hairpieces, becoming a valuable commodity in Britain (Miller 1982; Ofek 2009; Lutz 2011). Scientific analysis of the material of hair itself, however, unlocks information that can shed further light on sociocultural interaction, giving information on food procurement and consumption (DeNiro and Schoeniger 1983).

Isotopic analysis of bone for dietary reconstruction has been routinely practised in archaeology since the 1970s (Vogel and Van der Merwe 1977) and provides a long-term average of the diet over the last 10-30 years before death (Hedges et al. 2007). Unlike bone, however, hair grows incrementally (~1cm a month for human hair), providing time series information, and offering a valuable window on diet during the final months before death (White 1993; Kutschera and Müller 2003; Wilson et al. 2007; see Wilson, this issue). Despite this, hair has received comparatively little attention, primarily owing to its poor preservation on archaeological sites, mummies being an exception (see Wilson, this issue). Post-medieval remains, however, present an ideal case study, often being well preserved and possessing biographical data giving additional context. This short article presents a study of incremental analysis of carbon (δ13C) and nitrogen (δ15N) isotopes from hair sampled from a 19th-century individual, 'Elizabeth Robinson' (skeleton 48, Figure 1) deriving from an assemblage from St Barnabas church, West Kensington, where 55/58 burials had name plates and recorded dates of birth and death. She lived between 1768 and 1840, and died at 72 years of age. The research forms part of a wider project on post-medieval diets (Brown 2014).

Figure 1
Figure 1: Scalp hair sample from Elizabeth Robinson (SK48) from the St Barnabas assemblage


The hair underwent a 3-phase preparation following published methods (Tankersley and Koster 2009; Williams and Katzenberg 2012; Beaumont et al. 2013). The hair was soaked twice in a solution of 7 parts Dichloromethane to 1 part Methyl alcohol, to remove contaminants and lipids. It was then rinsed three times with ultrapure water and dried at 40°C for 48 hours. Lastly, the hair was cut into 1.5cm increments from root to tip, and 1mg aliquots of each increment were analysed in duplicate by elemental analysis/isotope ratio mass spectrometry (EA/IRMS, Sercon, Crewe, UK) at the University of York. Analytical error calculated from repeated measurement of an internal standard was <0.2 ‰ (1σ).

Results and Discussion

Table 1: Isotopic data for Elizabeth Robinson (SK48) by increment
Incrementδ13C (‰)δ15N (‰)
1 -19.08 12.71
2 -19.32 11.18
3 -19.35 10.58
4 -19.09 10.76
5 -18.89 10.93
6 -19.13 11.17
7 -19.14 11.23

Table 1 presents the carbon and nitrogen isotopic results of the work; these are plotted in Figure 2, and summary statistics are provided in Table 2. The values are suggestive of a C3 terrestrial-based diet, with a substantial input of animal protein (meat, dairy etc.), but little in the way of marine fish or C4 plants (maize). There is a wider range in δ15N (2.1 ‰) compared to δ13C (0.5 ‰) values for hair, and what is striking here is the marked increase in δ15N values during the most recent growth phases before death, while δ13C values show little variation.

Figure 2
Figure 2: Incremental δ13C and δ15N values for Elizabeth Robinson (SK48) plotted from proximal (the root) to distal (the hair tip) ends

A fluctuation in δ15N values accompanied by a similar variation in δ13C values is suggestive of dietary change (O'Connell and Hedges 1999; Williams and Katzenberg 2012). However, 15N-enrichment alone more likely reflects extreme physiological stress. Isotopic behaviour of this kind is consistent with the nutritional deprivation demonstrated by anorexia nervosa patients (Mekota et al. 2006) and pregnant women with acute morning sickness (Fuller et al. 2004). It has also been reported for famine sufferers identified in post-medieval populations from London (Beaumont et al. 2013). This phenomenon may therefore be an indication of nutritional and physiological stress before death, perhaps due to serious illness.

Table 2: The hair keratin statistics from St Barnabas (alongside the Devon site of West Butts: Wilson 2008, 49), two London sites, Spitalfields (O'Connell and Hedges 1999), and Lukin Street (Beaumont et al. 2013) and the Birmingham site of St Martin's (Richards 2006). West Butts is represented by two individuals
Site n Mean δ13C (‰, 1σ) Min (‰) Max (‰) Mean δ15N (‰, 1σ) Min (‰) Max (‰)
Barnabas 1 -19.1 ± 0.2 -19.4 -18.9 11.2 ± 0.7 10.6 12.8
Lukin street 6 -19.3 ± 1.2 -20.5 -17.0 11.5 ± 0.5 11.0 12.3
Spitalfields 17 -19.4 ± 0.6 -20.3 -18.0 11.1 ± 0.8 10.2 12.5
West Butts 1 -19.7 - - 10.4 - -
1 -19.9 - - 9.8 - -
St.Martin's 30 -19.7 ± 0.6 -23.1 -18.4 11.1 ± 0.8 7.8 13.0

The bone collagen isotope values for this individual were -18.1 ‰ for δ13C and 13.55 ‰ for δ15N (Brown 2014), showing higher δ15N and δ13C values compared to keratin, and which is in keeping with an anticipated isotopic offset between the two tissues (O'Connell et al. 2001), although the difference in nitrogen is large (2.3 ‰). The hair data may indicate a change to a diet with lower δ15N values later in life. This may suggest less animal protein was consumed, perhaps pointing to declining health. A similar finding was reported for a possible 19th-century migrant in from Lukin Street, London (Beaumont et al. 2013).

Figure 3
Figure 3: Isotopic values for hair keratin from Elizabeth Robinson, St Barnabas (alongside the Devon site of West Butts: Wilson 2008, 49), two London sites, Spitalfields (O'Connell and Hedges 1999), and Lukin Street (Beaumont et al. 2013) and the Birmingham site of St Martin's (Richards 2006). Coloured ellipses represent ±1σ for sites with sample numbers >2. Error bars on Barnabus represent ±1σ for multiple increments on a single individual. West Butts is represented by two individuals.

Placing the St Barnabas individual in a wider context, the mean hair isotopic values are compared with published values in Table 2 and Figure 3. The area of Chelsea around St Barnabas church is well known for being an affluent area (Shepherd et al. 1974). Elizabeth Robinson plots most closely to populations from the two other London sites (Lukin Street and Spitalfields), but these populations were likely of lower socioeconomic status, Lukin Street being a workhouse and Spitalfields considered middle class (Molleson and Cox 1993). The Barnabas individual fits into a growing isotopic dataset for the post-medieval period that suggests that higher δ15N values do not always correlate with socioeconomic status as they often do for earlier time periods (e.g. Le Huray and Schutkowski 2005 for the prehistoric period; Reitsema and Vercellotti 2012 for the Middle Ages), but instead appear to be linked with city living (Beaumont et al. 2013). This may result from manuring around human settlements and particularly the use of night soil (Shearer et al. 1983; Bogaard et al. 2007; Beaumont et al. 2013). This supports current theories that elevated nitrogen isotopic signals may result from continued activity on the land, and may distinguish between urban and rural sites (Nardoto et al. 2006; Commisso and Nelson 2010; Beaumont et al. 2013).


The exceptional advantage of multiple-tissue isotopic analysis is the potential for increased depth of study on an individual level. The utilisation of scientific data alongside historical documentation provides a window into past lives otherwise lost in generalist recording systems, and the addition of hair analysis allows for an extended historical biography to be constructed up to the months before death. In this example, biological markers suggesting chronic disease have been detected, allowing us to infer dietary change over the individual's lifecourse, showcasing the great potential for incremental isotopic analysis of hair in illuminating past lives.


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