Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Review | Voices from the Great Hunger:

Reconstructing the lifeways of people who perished in 19th century Kilkenny and London.

Lecture by Drs Julia Beaumont and Janet Montgomery at the Discovery Programme, 19th of March 2014.

Report by Philippa E Barry

In March 2014, the Discovery Programme, in partnership with the Irish Isotopes Research Group (IIRG), was delighted to welcome Drs Julia Beaumont and Janet Montgomery to speak about their work on Great Hunger victims in both Kilkenny and London.  The research was mostly a product of Julia’s PhD for which Janet acted as supervisor.  Janet was instrumental in bringing the use of strontium and lead isotope analysis to investigate human mobility into archaeology in the UK and as such, contributes to the recently formed IIRG.

Julia’s research turned out to be groundbreaking – because they sampled teeth from individuals from known contexts over very specific periods of time, they were able to apply historic data to a Neolithic Scottish population, clarifying to a great extent their subsistence strategies.

Janet introduced the talk and then Julia gave us the background to the work.  She worked as a dentist before going back to university to undertake her PhD.  The goal was to compare two populations enduring restricted diets and to compare victims and survivors of starvation.  The survivors came from Lukin Street, a Catholic cemetery used only between 1843 and 1854 and with documentary evidence for an Irish-speaking priest.  It was fortunate that the Kilkenny Union Workhouse (burials 1847 -1851) had been excavated in advance of development and that the skeletons had been analysed by Jonny Geber (they have since been reburied).   A third population, from Sumburgh Cist in Shetland that Janet was already working on, was used as a comparative population under dietary stress.

The first part of Julia’s talk was entitled a Tale of Two Cities.  Here she gave us the background to the assemblages and talked about what you might expect in the diets of people in the period between 1843 and 1854.  For individuals in the workhouses in particular, the diet would be high in maize or ‘Indian meal’ which was imported from the US to feed the victims.  A diet of maize can be differentiated from a diet of potatoes because maize is a C4 plant – meaning it’s photosynthesis of carbon is different due to the climate in which it usually grows.  Potatoes and most of the native mid- to northern-European plants are C3 plants.

This brought her to a Tale of Two Diets.  Prior to the famine an Irish person’s diet could consist of up to 14lbs a day of potatoes with some extras.  Julia described how there was evidence to suggest that some grew one fingernail a little longer to peel the skins off.  Potatoes would provide sufficient protein and vitamin C, and combined with milk, vitamins A and D.  Once the blight set in, maize replaced the potato as the main element of the diet.


In London, bread would seem to have been the staple carbohydrate, but foods would have been far more varied, with many consuming a large amount of fish as it was considered the cheap meat of the poor.   Some of those buried in London were found with full or partial name plates on the coffin and so far two death certificates have been located.  Julia was also able to use the Reports of the Registrar General for the area around Lukin Street (these are available free from the Wellcome Library) to build up a picture of the living conditions for locals.  It is not often the stories of the poor are revealed in such detail in archaeology, so it is amazing that we know Catherine Cotton died at 11 months and that her isotope signatures confirm she was most likely being breastfed, and that Miguel Pineda, 30, was a mariner, whose diet of fish is also supported by the isotopic analysis.  The tragic element of the research is that many of the confirmed C4/maize consumers in Kilkenny were children when they died.  This suggests that despite having secured nutrition, disease and a weakened immune system resulted in death at ages such as six, seven and thirteen.  Janet and Julia’s incremental dentine research (covered later) highlighted this.

Oxygen and Lead
Janet then took over the talk, introducing work covered in a grant from the Royal Irish Academy. Here the ladies tested for Oxygen (O) in the enamel (to suggest geographic origins) and Lead (Pb) which should be higher in city dwellers exposed to more pollution.

When they ran the oxygen, they found that the Londoners had very variable values, whereas the Kilkenny population were more uniform and had much lower values than would be expected.  One of the Londoners, Georgina Neale was born, raised and died in London and her oxygen value was as expected, so they do not believe that the calibration is off.  Further work will be needed to explain the Kilkenny oxygen values.

19th century Londoners could suffer lead exposure from the air, water pipes, and adulterated foods (they used it to make bread whiter and heavier).  She revealed that women working in lead acetate factories suffered multiple miscarriages as the lead poisoning would pass directly to the foetus and there was the suggestion that some women may have done this on purpose to avoid illness – that was one point that certainly had the attention of the room. 

Generally tooth enamel lead levels are below 0.5 ppm in individuals with little or no lead exposure such as people living in the Neolithic or Bronze Age, but one Londoner sampled had 90 ppm in their teeth.  When blood lead values pass over 10-20 ppm, severe toxicity sets in and neurological and physical effects become apparent.  The Kilkenny population were below 12 ppm, while Londoners had higher levels to varying degrees.  It was possible to identify individuals buried in London who fell within the range seen at Kilkenny using a combination of lead, oxygen, carbon and nitrogen isotopes.

Carbon and Nitrogen
As bone remodelling occurs at a much faster rate in children than in adults, the researchers felt dentine, which grows at a regular rate, would be a better proxy for identifying childhood diets in the adults and determining victims vs. survivors.  To do this, they removed the enamel and divided the dentine into regular sections. 

Starting with nitrogen (N), Fuller et al (2006) had used hair and nail samples from living individuals, showed that nitrogen values altered with breastfeeding and weaning.  Breastfeeding infants are at a higher trophic level to their mothers.  Those infants on formula milk exhibited very low nitrogen values until weaning.  Women suffering from morning sickness can exhibit increased nitrogen values that resemble breast feeding, as their bodies are forced to recycle proteins.  

In Kilkenny, carbon values climbed when maize was introduced.  Nitrogen values, which were high due to starvation decrease to a normal level.  Unfortunately the inmates’ nitrogen values increases again prior to death.  The researchers also analysed the teeth of adults to see if they could find earlier famines in their childhood. 

Individual KK17, an adult who died between 30-35 years displayed a stress at the age of 6-7.  It is possible that this individual lived through other famines that occurred in 1800, 1816-18.  Likewise the varying carbon and nitrogen values in the bone of KK5 suggested that they might have survived a famine in 1827, when there are recorded imports of maize. 

Sumburgh Cist, Shetland
The Sumburgh cist was found during construction works at Sumburgh airport.  The cist was a comingled burial containing the fragmentary bones of about 20 individuals, with a radiocarbon date range of  3340-2660  BC.  Infection, childhood periods of stress, and nutritional deficiencies are suggested by the skeletal remains.  A remote location at 60⁰ north, Shetland has no native freshwater fish or fauna and the date for the burials overlaps with a nearby shell midden.  The individuals appear to have consumed both terrestrial and marine foods in an effort to subsist on scarce resources.  According to the dentine evidence, marine foods would appear to have been used as a short term strategy, perhaps in times of crop failure.  Many of the Sumburgh cist individuals exhibited increased marine protein consumption before death and somes survived periods of dietary stress  similar to the Kilkenny and some of the London individuals.  The data from the Kilkenny Union Workhouse in particular helped to put the results from the cist individuals in context and supported the osteological data.

Summary
By running multiple analyses, supported with historical and archaeological data, Janet and Julia were able to compare a Neolithic population to historical ones where they had more information – this allowed them to draw inferences as to stressful events in the lives of the Neolithic population.  The study also showed that in times of famine, the introduction of maize to the diet may have saved many people, but despite an initial lowering of nitrogen values and a stabilising of carbon, others would succumb to disease or other stresses.  Nitrogen values have also been confirmed as a strong marker for nutritional stress in children in this study. 

The Lukin St. and Kilkenny Union Workhouse populations offered a unique opportunity to study changes in diet in two cemeteries with known periods of use, and in the case of Lukin St., named individuals.  Oxygen and lead analyses also permitted the study of migration.  Both populations were later reburied, but by conducting such extensive analysis, Julia and Janet were able to bring their stories to the fore, as individuals drawn from the nameless millions who lived and died during the Great Hunger.

What followed the talk was one of the most engaging discussions in the Helen Roe lecture theater that I have witnessed.  Many of the audience had questions and comments, some of which related to the science of the project and were above the heads of others!  We were delighted also that Marian Acreman, who was appointed Centre Manager of MacDonagh Junction (site of the Kilkenny Union Workhouse), found out about the talk via Facebook and came to learn more and share her thoughts and local interest in the project.  There are not many shopping centres that have a dedicated section on Heritage as part of the websites.

The Discovery Programme hopes to initiate a lecture series in the autumn of this year and given the success of this talk, we hope that Janet and Julia will join us.  We would all certainly listen to it again!  To read more about their research and the Kilkenny Union Workhouse:

                Current Archaeology free access

Beaumont, J., Geber, J., Powers, N., Wilson, A.S., Lee-Thorp, Julia & Montgomery, J. 2013 Victims and survivors: stable isotopes used to identify migrants from the Great Irish Famine to 19th Century London. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 150, 87-98.


Montgomery, J., Beaumont, J., Jay, A., Keefe, A., Gledhill, A. R., Cook, G., Dockrill, S. J., & Melton, N. D. 2013 "Strategic and Sporadic Marine Consumption at the Onset of the Neolithic: Increasing Temporal Resolution inthe Isotope Evidence." Antiquity 87, no. 338, 1060-1072.


Beaumont J, & Montgomery J. 2013 'Using stable isotope analysis to identify Irish migrants in the Catholic Mission of St Mary and St Michael, Whitechapel' in Miles, A. & Bowsher, D 'He being dead yet speaketh' Excavations at three post-medieval burial grounds in Tower Hamlets, East London, 2004–08. London.

Beaumont J. 2009 'Irish Names in a London Cemetery: is it Possible to Identify Irish Immigration in 19th Century Lukin Street?' in Sykes, N. J., & Newton, C. (ed). Food and Drink in Archaeology 2: University of Nottingham Postgraduate Conference 2008 Totnes, Devon: Prospect Books. p 21-28.

Geber, J. 2011 'Osteoarchaeological and archaeological insights into the deaths and intramural mass burials at the Kilkenny Union Workhouse between 1847–51 during the Great Famine' Old Kilkenny Review 63, 64–75.

Geber, J. & Murphy, E. 2012 'Scurvy in the Great IrishFamine: Evidence of Vitamin C deficiency from a mid-19th century skeletal population' American Journal of Physical Anthropology 148, 512–24.

Geber, J. 2012 'Burying the Famine dead: Kilkenny Union Workhouse' in Crowley, J. & Smyth, W. J. (eds.) Atlas of the Great Irish Famine 1845-52, pp. 341–8. Cork.