So British scientists have proved some bones found in Magdeburg Cathedral to be the remains of our Anglo-Saxon Princess Eadgyth. At least, science helped. Eadgyth was known to have been buried in Germany: in 2008 archaeologists there opened her tomb, and found a lead box containing bones from a woman of the right age, with an inscription saying they were her remains.
In a more innocent age, this might have been enough to settle the case. But today we like science, the full CSI drama. Yet before we get too cynical about Eadgyth (the science showed that the woman in Magdeburg probably grew up in southern England), we should recognise that the technique used is transforming the way we think about our ancient and early historic past. Something big is going on.
Most of Eadgyth’s skull was missing, but her upper jaw had survived. This enabled scientists to examine strontium and oxygen isotopes in her teeth. These are fixed in enamel as it grows, so the isotope signature reflects the source of these elements (ingested through food and drink): and as different teeth grow at different ages, you can map changes through adolescence. The significance of this is that the isotopes vary according to temperature, altitude, distance from the sea and local geology. Match teeth with landscape, and you chart early residence and movements.