Iron Age Man
Friday: November 13: 2020: University of Southampton News || ά.
new Study of the skeleton of an Iron Age man with the first
known case of tuberculosis in Britain has shed new light on
his origins. Archaeological excavations at Tarrant Hinton,
Dorset, between 1967 and 1985 uncovered a variety of
evidence for settlement between the Iron Age and the Roman
period. Possibly, the most significant discovery was the
skeleton of an Iron Age man, whose spine displayed signs of
tuberculosis:TB. The man, who died between 400 and 230 BC,
is, in fact, the earliest case of TB ever found in Britain.
this new Study, chemical analysis of the man’s bones and teeth,
carried out by the University of Southampton for the Museum of East
Dorset, has, finally, answered some key questions about his origins.
The results show that the man arrived in Dorset as a child, around
the age of eight. His family came from an area of Carboniferous
Limestone outside Britain, somewhere to the south or west. The
skeleton is now on permanent display at the newly-refurbished Museum
of East Dorset in Wimborne, currently closed due to COVID-19
Professor Alistair Pike, of Archaeological Sciences at the
University of Southampton, helped build a picture of the man, using
mass spectroscopy to investigate stable isotope ratios, carbon,
nitrogen, strontium and oxygen. This type of analysis works on the
principle that whilst everyone’s bones and teeth are made up of the
same chemical elements, differences in the precise form of these
chemicals can provide information about a person’s diet and, also,
the source of their drinking water when their teeth were forming in
childhood. Samples were taken from the tooth enamel of three molars
whilst collagen was extracted from rib and long bone fragments.
Carbon and nitrogen isotopes indicated that the man ate a mixed
diet, consisting of plants, cereal crops and other vegetables, grown
on chalkland, whilst the bulk of his protein came from cattle and
sheep. His diet was less varied than that of other Iron Age people
as there was no evidence of marine or freshwater fish or pig.
Strontium isotopes showed that the man was living on the southern
British chalklands between the ages of eight to fourteen, when his
third molar, wisdom tooth, was developing. However, the oxygen
values for the two earlier molars, suggest a non-local origin before
the child was weaned on to solid foods.
The combined strontium and oxygen isotope analyses suggest a high
probability that the man spent his early childhood in an area of
Carboniferous Limestone to the west of Britain. This type of geology
is found in South or West Ireland, on the Atlantic coasts of South
West France and in the Cantabrian Mountains of Northern Spain.
Simon Mays, Human Skeletal Biologist for Historic England, said, "We
know from the DNA evidence that this person would have got his TB
from another person rather than from infected meat or milk.
Human-to-human transmission is favoured by crowded city living but,
the fact that we find TB at this early date reminds us that the
disease could still survive in the rather sparse human populations
of the pre-historic past.
Finds of diseased skeletons in Continental Europe tell us that
tuberculosis was present there for thousands of years before our
Tarrant Hinton man was born. The isotope evidence is tantalising.
Perhaps, he caught his disease in mainland Europe. But it could
equally well be that TB was already well-established here by the
Iron Age. It does not, often, show on the bones and we do not have
very many skeletons from this period."
Professor Alistair Pike said, “The recent global coronavirus
pandemic has shown how the long-distance movement of people can
rapidly spread disease and this will have been no different in the
past. By using isotopes to trace pre-historic people’s origins we
hope to determine when, where and how far the diseases of the time
James Webb, Acting Museum Director, said: “We know that the Iron Age
man lived in a small farming settlement and was aged between 30 and
40 years old when he died. He had advanced tuberculosis in his
spine, also, known as, Pott’s Disease; so, he must have been in
considerable pain. The changes in his spine would have taken several
years to develop. His mobility and daily functioning would have been
impaired. The indication is that his community must have cared for
him, despite his illness, for him to have survived so long.
The results shed more light on Iron Age society. They, also, show
that local people had access to the Atlantic sea routes, which
linked the coastal communities of Europe. The knowledge, gained will
help the Museum of East Dorset to develop new education sessions and
resources around the Iron Age skeleton, which is now on permanent
display in the refurbished museum.”
The research was made possible by a small grant of £1,000 from South
West Museum Development. The project, ‘The Iron Age TB Skeleton:
Going Beyond the Glass Case’ has enabled the Museum of East Dorset
to draw new conclusions and improve the interpretation of this
significant and nationally-important artefact for a range of
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