Isotopes reveal the diet of a king

17 August 2014 by Tom Marshall

Richard III enjoyed a life of luxury during the brief period between becoming king and perishing at the Battle of Bosworth, an analysis of the chemical composition of his bones and teeth has shown.

Richard III's skull

Richard III's skull

A few years before his death, Richard seems to have started eating more freshwater fish and birds - perhaps popular royal treats like swans, cranes, herons and egrets. Around the same time he seems to have started knocking back a lot more wine, adding weight to the idea that the change in diet arose from his sudden elevation to the throne in 1483 and consequent enormous increase in social status.

The results, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science and broadcast tonight on the UK's Channel 4, also provided new information about the monarch's childhood.

Scientists from NERC's British Geological Survey analysed samples from his teeth, femur and rib, which develop at different stages of life and grow at different speeds. They looked at the proportion of different forms of the same elements - known as isotopes - found in each sample.

As these parts of the body grow, they incorporate chemicals from the environment around them. Each part of the world has its own distinctive mix of isotopes, and this means someone's teeth and bones contain a permanent record of where they were living at the time that part of the body formed.

Dr Angela Lamb and Professor Jane Evans in the BGS isotope laboratory

Dr Angela Lamb and Professor Jane Evans in the BGS isotope laboratory.

The teeth, which grow only in childhood and then don't change much from then on, confirm that Richard moved from Fotheringay castle in the east of England by his seventh birthday; after that point his teeth started to lay down material containing isotopes suggestive of an area with more rain, older rocks and different food available than where he'd spent his early years.

By contrast the femur, whose composition reflects the materials in a person's environment around fifteen years before death, suggests that Richard had moved back to eastern England in adolescence or young manhood.

The ribs renew themselves comparatively quickly, so they provide information on diet and environment in the last two years before death, and here they indicate the biggest change of lifestyle of all - a major increase in consumption of wine and protein-rich foods associated with high social standing.

"The chemistry of Richard III's teeth and bones reveal changes in his geographical movements, diet and social status throughout his life," says Dr Angela Lamb, isotope geochemist at BGS and lead author of the paper.

"This cutting edge research has provided a unique opportunity to shed new light on the diet and environment of a major historical figure - Richard III," says Richard Buckley of Leicester Archaeological Services, who led the dig that discovered the monarch's remains under a Leicester car park in 2012. "It is very rare indeed in archaeology to be able to identify a named individual with precise dates and a documented life. This has enabled the stable-isotope analysis to show how his environment changed at different times in his life and, perhaps most significantly, identified marked changes in his diet when he became king."