On the distribution of trace element concentrations in multiple bone elements in 10 Danish medieval and post-medieval individuals

Kaare Lund Rasmussen*, Lilian Skytte, Paolo D'imporzano, Per Orla Thomsen, Morten Søvsø, Jesper Lier Boldsen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review

27 Downloads (Pure)


Background: The differences in trace element concentrations among 19 different bone elements procured from 10 archaeologically derived human skeletons have been investigated. The 10 individuals are dated archaeologically and some by radiocarbon dating to the medieval and post-medieval period, an interval from ca. AD 1150 to ca. AD 1810. This study is relevant for two reasons. First, most archaeometric studies analyze only one bone sample from each individual; so to what degree are the bones in the human body equal in trace element chemistry? Second, differences in turnover time of the bone elements makes the cortical tissues record the trace element concentrations in equilibrium with the blood stream over a longer time earlier in life than the trabecular. Therefore, any differences in trace element concentrations between the bone elements can yield what can be termed a chemical life history of the individual, revealing changes in diet, provenance, or medication throughout life. Methods: Thorough decontamination and strict exclusion of non-viable data has secured a dataset of high quality. The measurements were carried out using Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry (for Fe, Mn, Al, Ca, Mg, Na, Ba, Sr, Zn, Pb and As) and Cold Vapor Atomic Absorption Spectroscopy (for Hg) on ca. 20 mg samples. Results: Twelve major and trace elements have been measured on 19 bone elements from 10 different individuals interred at five cemeteries widely distributed in medieval and renaissance Denmark. The ranges of the concentrations of elements were: Na (2240–5660 µg g−1), Mg (440–2490 µg g−1), Al (9–2030 µg g−1), Ca (22-36 wt. %), Mn (5–11450 µg g−1), Fe (32–41850 µg g−1), Zn (69–2610 µg g−1), As (0.4–120 µg g−1), Sr (101-815 µg g−1), Ba (8-880 µg g−1), Hg (7–78730 ng g−1), and Pb (0.8–426 µg g−1). Conclusions: It is found that excess As is mainly of diagenetic origin. The results support that Ba and Sr concentrations are effective provenance or dietary indicators. Migrating behavior or changes in diet have been observed in four individuals; non-migratory or non-changing diet in six out of the 10 individuals studied. From the two most mobile (most changing diet) individuals in the study, it is deduced that the fastest turnover is seen in the trabecular tissues of the long bones and the hands and the feet, and that these bone elements have higher turnover rates than centrally placed trabecular bone tissue, such as from the ilium or the spine. Comparing Sr and published bone turnover times, it is concluded that the differences seen in Sr concentrations are not caused by diagenesis, but by changes of diet or provenance. Finally, it is concluded that there can be two viable interpretations of the Pb concentrations, which can either be seen as an indicator for social class or a temporal development of increased Pb exposure over the centuries.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)90-102
Number of pages13
JournalAmerican Journal of Physical Anthropology
Issue number1
Early online date15 Sept 2016
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2017


We would like to thank the museums and archaeologists responsible for the excavations from which we have obtained permission to sample the skeletal material: besides two of the authors (POT and MS), Marie F. Klemensen and Jørgen Skårup. We would like thank the following for practical, technical or other help in connection with the project: P. Tarp, D.D. Pedersen, S. Wiese, P.K. Haussmann, and B. Theilade. This work was supported by EU Interreg 4a through the project Bones4Culture and the VELUX Foundation through the project OPHELIA. Both agencies are gratefully acknowledged for their support. We would like to thank two anonymous reviewers and the associate editor for constructive criticism which helped improve the manuscript.

FundersFunder number
EU Interreg 4a
Velux Stiftung


    • barium
    • Denmark
    • lead
    • multiple bone samples
    • social indicator
    • strontium
    • trace element analyses


    Dive into the research topics of 'On the distribution of trace element concentrations in multiple bone elements in 10 Danish medieval and post-medieval individuals'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

    Cite this