What Amino Acids in Shells tell us About Bronze Age People

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Scientists at the University of York have conducted a study that has unveiled new information on the use of mollusc shells and personal adornments by people in the Bronze Age.

The research team used a variety of techniques to conduct their research. These included: amino acid racemisation analyisis (a technique previously used in the dating of artefacts), light microscopy, scanning electron microscopy and Raman Spectroscopy, in order to identify raw materials used to create a complex necklace which was discovered in an Early Bronze Age Burial site in Suffolk. The research has been published in PLOS ONE.

From completing this research the team managed to discover that the craftspeople of the Bronze Age used dog whelk and tusk shells, it is probable that these were sourced locally, to manufacture tiny disc-shaped beads in the necklace.

Included in the group of researchers were archaeologists, mathematicians, chemists and physicists. Dr Sonia O’Connor, of the University of Bradford’s Department of Archaeological Sciences conducted the light and electron microscopy. Dr Alison Sheridon, a prehistoric jewelry specialist from the National Museum Scotland facilitated access to the Great Cornard necklace, which was excavated by Suffolk Archaeology.

On discovery that the tiny white beads were created from shell, the source of these shells was then considered. It was questioned if the shells were sourced locally or if they originated from somewhere further afield. The Mediterranean thorny oyster (Spondylus) is know for its symbolic cultural significance in the Bronze Age, along with this it is known that it was used on the Continent at the time the necklace would have been made.

Therefore it was proposed that this Mediterranean thorny oyster was the shell used for the creation of the necklace.However, collaborative research led by Dr Beatrice Demarchi, from York’s department of archaeology, and Dr Julie Wilson, from the departments of Chemistry and Mathematics and YCCSA, managed to conclude that this in fact was not the case. They have suggested an alternative possibility.


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Dr Demarchi said: “Dog whelks and tusk shells were likely to be available locally so these people did not have to travel far to get hold of the raw materials for their beads. There is evidence, from elsewhere in Britain and further afield, for the use of tusk shells at various times in the past. This may well be because they are relatively easy to work and their hollow shape is very distinctive.”

Dr Wilson added: “The statistical analysis used pattern recognition algorithms for taxonomic identification, comparing the composition of the beads with a large database of shell amino acid compositions. Although we cannot know the origin of the beads for certain, our multidisciplinary approach provides additional evidence for the identifications.”

University of York   Header Image: WikiPedia

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