Case Study: The Medieval Bishops of Whithorn

When applied to human remains, stable isotope analysis can offer both population level and individual data, revealing details of the lives of individual people, and also informing on broader societal trends. To date, very few studies have focused on material from Scotland, although the handful of research projects undertaken to date reveal the true potential of these methods to the key themes of Scottish Archaeology, from Prehistory to the Post-medieval period.

A recent study, published in Antiquity (Müldner et al. 2009) demonstrates the power of stable isotopes to inform on individual life histories, and through this, reveal important information about past societies. In combination with traditional archaeological approaches used to assess the burials, this study undertook isotope analysis on human remains at Whithorn Cathedral Priory (Dumfries and Galloway), in order to assess diet, status (δ13C, δ15N), and mobility (δ18O, 87Sr/86Sr) between different individuals and groups. The study revealed differences between the lay-community, high-ranking clergy and the Bishops buried in the Medieval cemetery, concluding that the Bishops consumed significantly more fish than the meat-eating populus and were also – for the most part – likely to have moved to the area from further east in Scotland. The consumption of fish – a spiritually-significant fasting food – provides direct evidence for this religious practice in the lives of medieval clergy men. In contrast to the Bishops, the lay-community were largely identified as having local upbringings, implying that – within medieval society – mobility itself was status-dependant. Whilst revealing the life-histories of individuals, the isotope data attest to the expression of contemporary social, religious and status differences within medieval society (Müldner et al. 2009: 1131).

Return to Section 2.4 Isotope Analysis