Isotopes and Individuals: Diet and Mobility among the Medieval Bishops of Whithorn

Article excerpt


Isotope analyses of human skeletal tissue allow the assessment of diet and mobility at the level of individuals. These methods, on their own, are powerful tools for advancing our understanding of the past, but they are most valuable where the isotope data can be integrated with rich contextual evidence. Particularly interesting and potentially very fruitful, are those occasions where samples can be tested against known archaeological contexts and documentary evidence, or even applied to historically attested persons.

Renewed work on the archives of the 1957-67 excavations at Whithorn Cathedral Priory, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland, recently afforded an opportunity to analyse the remains of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century bishops and clerics of Whithorn Cathedral (Lowe 2009). This was a tare chance to explore the life histories of a well-defined group of people in medieval British society, to test common assumptions about their lifestyle and to contrast them with lay individuals from the same site. We present here the results of this investigation as an example of how isotope methods can be integrated with archaeological and historical evidence in order to provide a novel perspective on the study of medieval burials.

Whithorn Cathedral Priory and town

Whithorn (Candida Casa) is situated on the Machars Peninsula in the historic county of Wigtownshire in south-west Scotland (Figure 1). According to tradition, it was founded by Ninian, first missionary among the Picts, in the early fifth century AD. Excavations have shown the presence of a possibly monastic settlement flora at least the early sixth century and the Venerable Bede, writing in or before AD 731, reported the recent establishment of a Northumbrian bishopric at Whithorn (Bede HE iii,4 (Colgrave & Mynors 1979: 222-3); Hill 1997; Fraser 2002). In the eleventh and twelfth century, Whithorn expanded into one of the first urban settlements in Scotland. Until the Reformation, it was an important ecclesiastical centre, with a priory of Premonstratensian canons attached to the cathedral from c. AD 1177. Its sacred focus was the shrine of St Ninian, which attracted large numbers of pilgrims flora the British Isles, Ireland and continental Europe. The Bishops of Whithorn presided over the province of Galloway in south-west Scotland which, in the medieval period, formed part of the archdiocese of York (Yeoman 1999; Oram in Lowe 2009).

Burial at Whithorn Cathedral Priory

A concentration of burials in the presbytery, in immediate proximity to the presumed location of the shrine of St Ninian, was revealed by excavations in the east end of the medieval cathedral under the direction of P.R. Ritchie from 1957. These burials, in the most prestigious location a medieval church afforded, were clearly of very high status. Several of the individuals were interred in stone cists, in one case a stone-built chamber, and various graves contained liturgical objects and other artefacts that identified several of the deceased as high ranking clerics (Lowe 2009; see also Gilchrist & Sloane 2005). At least three individuals were identified by name as former Bishops of Whithorn, on the basis of detailed analysis of the archaeological contexts and historical records combined with evidence from the osteological assessment and radiocarbon dating of the human remains. Others could not be matched with historical personae bur are identified as priests by their accompanying artefacts. These men were presumably high ranking clerics at the cathedral chapter or the wider diocese (Lowe 2009; see Table 1).

In order to investigate aspects of the lifestyle and life-history of senior clergy at one of medieval Scotland's most prominent cathedral churches, bone and tooth samples of six of the presumed bishops and priests were submitted for isotope analysis of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and strontium for the reconstruction of diet and mobility. …