Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Grave Analysis: Shedding Light on Death

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Grave Analysis: Shedding Light on Death

Article excerpt

The day before the child's death 800 years ago in Ribe, Denmark, was full of suffering, because the 10-13 year old had been dosed with mercury to treat a severe illness. Chemist Kaare Lund Rasmussen from the University of Southern Denmark determined this using a new methodology he and his colleagues developed, which can reveal details from just hours before a person's death.

"I cannot say which diseases the child had contracted," Rasmussen says, "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 that the family tried to cure the child with mercury-containing medicine."

This insight came not from analyzing the child's bones but rather by extracting information from the soil surrounding the child's body, buried in a cemetery in Ribe.

"When the body decays, a lot of compounds, most of them organic, are released to the surrounding soil," Rasmussen says. "If we can localize an element in the soil in the immediate vicinity of the skeleton that 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."

Mercury in particular is worth looking for, he explains. This rare element has been found in archaeological digs in Italy, China, Central America, and, now, Denmark. In medieval Europe, mercury was used for centuries in the pigment cinnabar, which was used for illuminating manuscripts by medieval monks, and since Roman times, mercury was widely used as the active ingredient in numerous medicines. …

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