Copper exposure in medieval and post‑medieval Denmark and northern Germany: its relationship to residence location and social position

Kaare Lund Rasmussen, George Robert Milner, Thomas Delbey, Lilian Skytte, Morten Søvsø, Frederik Callesen, Jesper Lier Boldsen

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For medieval and post-medieval Denmark and northern Germany, trace elements can potentially contribute to
our understanding of diet, migration, social status, exposure to urban settings, and disease treatment. Copper, of
particular interest as a marker of access to everyday metal items, can be used to clarify socioeconomic distinctions
between and within communities. Postmortem alteration of bone (diagenesis), however, must be ruled out before
the elements can be used to characterize life in the past. Femoral cortical bone samples of ca. 40 mg were thoroughly
decontaminated, and the concentrations of Al, Ca, Mn, Fe, Cu, As, Sr, Ba, and Pb were measured using inductively
coupled plasma mass spectrometry. The concentrations of these elements were quantified in bone samples from 553
skeletons from 9 rural and urban cemeteries, and 34 soil samples obtained near three burials. Copper, the primary
element of interest in this work, is generally absent from the femoral cortical bone of rural people, although it occurs
in high concentrations in the skeletons of the inhabitants of towns. The Cu in medieval to post-medieval bones likely
originated from everyday objects, notably kitchen utensils. A rural to urban distinction in Cu concentrations, found
repeatedly at two sites, likely resulted from differential access to much-desired, although still utilitarian, household
items. An uneven distribution of metal objects used in domestic contexts, demonstrated through bone chemistry,
was greater between rural and urban communities than it was within urban centres, at least among the socioeconomic
positions sampled in this study.
Original languageEnglish
Article number18 (2020)
JournalHeritage Science
Issue number18
Number of pages22
Publication statusPublished - 21 Feb 2020

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