Skeletons reveal history

Using skeletons, biological anthropologist Stian Suppersberger Hamre studies the food and travels of Scandinavians who lived 1,000 years ago.

Stian Suppersberger Hamre
ANALYSING SKELETONS: Stian Suppersberger Hamre can tell what persons of the middle ages ate, by studying skeletons.
Eivind Senneset

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“Migration is not a modern phenomenon in Norway or in Scandinavia. Norwegian cities were inhabited by people from different parts of the country and by immigrants from Europe and probably even further away than that,” says postdoctoral fellow Stian Suppersberger Hamre at the Department of Archaeology, History, Cultural Studies and Religion at the University of Bergen (UiB).

Using DNA and isotope analysis, Suppersberger Hamre has studied the composition of populations in Norwegian towns in the research project Immigration and mobility in mediaeval and post-mediaeval Norway, funded by the Research Council of Norway’s SAMKUL programme.

A brief history of food

In his new project, Immigration, mobility and population composition in pre-modern Scandinavia, for which he has once again applied for SAMKUL funding, Suppersberger Hamre wants to look at the composition of the populations in Bergen, Århus and Gothenburg in mediaeval and early modern times. By doing analysis of skeletons, he can find out, among other things, what food people consumed.

“Diet not only shows us what people ate and what types of animals were available, but it also reveals a lot about the culture and social circumstances at a certain time in history,” says Suppersberger Hamre.

He explains that an individual person’s diet can reveal what social status they had, or what religion they belonged to. The diet can also reveal where they were born, and where they moved to during their lifetime. In addition, it can reveal if the migrant integrated new customs and food traditions when travelling to new places.

“Bergen used to be a large trading town and people migrated from many places and brought with them a lot of customs and languages. There is little doubt that Bergen was a very complex town during the Middle Ages,” Suppersberger Hamre says.

Teeth and ribs reveals diet

To get an idea of the composition of the population and what food individuals ate in the Middle Ages, Suppersberger Hamre analyses isotopes from teeth and ribs from skeletons. These analyses show where the people were born and stayed during their lifetime, as well as what food they consumed.

“It is possible to get very detailed information about what the persons ate, such as different kinds of meat, marine animals, grains and vegetables,” Suppersberger Hamre says.

“By analysing skeletons it is possible to recreate individual life stories from the Middle Ages.”

Showing personal history

Suppersberger Hamre is one of the invited speakers during the Christie Conference 2016, where he is going to illustrate an individual´s migration story in 13th century Bergen.

In September 2016, the Bergen City Museum will host an exhibition about the pre-modern population of Norway. Model makers from England have made reconstructions of three pre-modern individuals, based on their skulls. Knowledge of human musculature and skeletons, computer skills, gene information and the use of 3D printers have combined to make replications of the persons from the Middle Ages.

“In addition to the displaying models of these persons, we will tell their individual histories,” the researcher explains.

Completing the picture

Suppersberger Hamre has access to the skeletons from museums and archaeological excavations. He also uses archaeological and written historical sources.

“By combining data from skeletons and other historic materials, the historical picture of the Middle Ages and the way ordinary people lived becomes more complete,” Stian Suppersberger Hamre says.