The Importance of Dirt – New Archaeological Technique


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“The day before the child’s death was not a pleasant one, because it was not a sudden injury that killed the 10-13 year old child who was buried in the medieval town of Ribe in Denmark 800 years ago. The day before death was full of suffering because the child had been given a large dose of mercury in an attempt to cure a severe illness.

This is now known to chemist Kaare Lund Rasmussen from University of Southern Denmark – because he and his colleagues have developed a new  that can reveal an unheard amount of details from very shortly before a person’s death. Mercury is of particular interest for the archaeologists as many cultures in different part of the world have been in contact with this .

“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”, says Kaare Lund Rasmussen.

The detailed insight into the life of the child did not come from analyses of the child’s bones. Instead Kaare Lund Rasmussen and his colleagues have developed a method to extract information from the  surrounding the body of the dead child in the cemetery in Ribe, Denmark.

thedaybefore

“When the body decays in the grave a lot of compounds are released to the surrounding soil – by far most of them . 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  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.

Mercury in particular is worth looking for, he explains. This element is very rare in normal soil, but has been used in several  worldwide, and it is therefore expected sometimes to be found in archaeological excavations in a variety of places like Italy, China, Central America and – as it appears – also in medieval Denmark. 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 in particular is worth looking for, he explains. This element is very rare in normal soil, but has been used in several  worldwide, and it is therefore expected sometimes to be found in archaeological excavations in a variety of places like Italy, China, Central America and – as it appears – also in medieval Denmark. 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.”

Read the full article here.

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