As archaeologists, we are usually pretty happy to have any evidence of death such as a clear sign of cranial trauma or a obvious disease like advanced tuberculosis. However, most of the time the skeleton its self is not the most helpful in trying to determine what caused their death. They may have a number of non-specific signs of infection, or evidence for vitamin deficiencies, and numerous healed wounds or fractures- but what actually caused them to die is unknown. Usually, the cause of death takes place in the soft tissue which is not preserved. Sometimes we get lucky- there may be historical records about the cause of death such as Richard III, or we may be able to make a contextual association such as the mass graves from the plague, or sometimes we even get some preservation like in the bog bodies or the Incan children. A new technique by archaeologists Rasmussen et al. (2013) has revealed insight into not only the cause of death in an individual, but also what specifically happened to them the day before they died.
Between 1200-1250 CE in the medieval period, a child aged 10-13 years old was suffering from a debilitating disease. Two months before the child died, they were given a large dose of mercury as a possible cure. The day before the child died, they were given a second higher dose of mercury. It would have been day of intense pain and suffering, that ended with their death soon after. Mercury poisoning causes loss of teeth, nails and hair, kidney dysfunction, increased sweating, neurological damage, and eventually death.
Usually, when we have this level of detail regarding cause of death it is because we have isotopic evidence or historic text. However, a new technique developed found the answer to the question of cause of death in the soil of the burial. When the body decays in the grave without a coffin, compounds are released from the body into the surrounding soil. Most of these elements will over time migrate into the groundwater or transform into other compounds. If the soil is analyzed in a number of areas, and the ground around the remains produces elements not normally found in the area, it is assumed that these came from the deceased. The soil was analyzed around the location where the kidneys and lungs would have been, and mercury sulphide was discovered. Based on the presence of mercury around where the lungs were, they were able to determine that the child had been exposed to the element at least 48 hours before they died since mercury dissipates after that amount of time if the individual is still alive.
Since before written history, mercury has been thought to have magical and medicinal uses. It was also used in Ancient China and Egypt for a variety of cosmetics, soaps and laxatives. Due to its composition, mercury was closely related with alchemy, and was thought to have a number of healing properties. In 210 BC, mercury and powdered jade was prescribed by physicians to the Emperor Qin Shihuang in order to promote eternal life- though it had the opposite effects and ended up killing him (Masur 2011). In the 15th century, mercury therapy was a popular remedy for syphilis (whether it worked or not is unknown, and from Chirurgeon’s Apprentice we learn that the side effects of the treatment were almost as bad as the disease itself). Mercury was quite popular in the 18th century due primarily to the work of Dr. Quicksilver, also known as Thomas Dover. Mercury was seen as a magical entity that could sure various diseases as the molecular level. Dr. Quicksilver was highly popular and charismatic, and his assertion that mercury could cure dozens of ailments resonated with the public despite doctors beginning to realize that mercury could be extremely dangerous.
The whole technique behind this article is quite awesome (as in awe-inspiring), and it is interesting to learn that we can now add mercury poisoning to one of the potential causes of death we can unearth. The article makes a great point in noting that they became concerned thinking about all the dirt that archaeologists have removed from burials, and how it could have contained evidence about the lifestyles of the deceased. If you think a lot about the great new insights being discovered, they start with the excavation itself- such as the fantastic vertical excavation of neolithic burials discovering that they were seated. It all starts with the excavation- the more we uncover there, the more we can interpret in the end.
Kaare Lund Rasmussen, Lilian Skytte, Nadja Ramseyer, & Jesper Lier Boldsen (2013). Mercury in soil surrounding medieval human remains Heritage Science, 1 DOI: 10.1186/2050-7445-1-16
Masur LC (2011). A review of the use of mercury in historic and current ritualistic and spiritual practices. Alternative medicine review : a journal of clinical therapeutic, 16 (4), 314-20 PMID: 22214251
Phys Org 2013. The day before death: A new archaeological technique gives insight into the day before death. Phys Org. http://phys.org/news/2013-08-day-death-archaeological-technique-insight.html