Solving a Hair-Raising Mystery with Chromatography!
Jun 17 2016
The mystery of a full head of hair found in a coffin in Hampshire is closer to being solved with the help of a young man’s determination and gas chromatography. The hair in question was discovered by gravediggers in 1839 and is thought to have perhaps belonged to a saint of the parish in which it was discovered.
The hair has been on display in Romsey Abbey for the last few decades — with its origins a mystery. The enigma caught the attention of one young boy 16 years ago — who has made good on his promise to track down more information about the anonymous hair.
One boy’s lifelong fascination comes to fruition
In 2000, 7-year-old Jamie Cameron visited the Abbey on a school trip and was immediately drawn to the hair and the mystery surrounding it. Indeed, his fascination contributed to a desire to pursue a career in archaeology. “I thought one day when I'm grown up I might be in a position to be able to try and work out who this person might have been,” he explained. Now a 23-year-old archaeological scientist, Cameron returned to his hometown this year to try and solve the mystery.
He obtained permission from the Abbey to take a sample of the hair and sent it to a team at Oxford University, who subjected it to a series of forensic tests. Using carbon dating to determine the hair’s age, it also underwent gas chromatography coupled with mass spectrometry (GC-MS). Forensic analysis techniques are discussed in the article, FT-IR Microspectroscopy in Forensic and Crime Lab Analysis.
The test results revealed
“The radio carbon tests that we carried out suggest something in the mid to late Saxon era,” said Cameron — and GC-MS revealed traces of pine resin and marine protein which could come from fish, suggesting a seafaring person. Armed with this knowledge, the archaeological adviser to the Abbey — Frank Green — believes they now have important clues to the identity of the mystery person.
“The fact that this person had a marine diet could be very specific to perhaps members of the monastic community,” he said. “And the context of the burial in what would have been the south transept of the previous building right against the abbesses’ doorway, strongly suggests it’s someone linked to the monastic community.”
So, while we now know several key pieces of information about the deceased, is it enough to make a positive identification?
“I think many people would like to think it is St Ethelfaeda,” concluded Green. “It could well be that it is her burial.” St Ethelfaeda is the patron saint of the Abbey and one of two saints belonging to the parish.
Unfortunately, science has not advanced far enough that we are able to provide a conclusive answer to the question. Perhaps the next generation of schoolchildren who visit the Abbey will be able to finally solve Cameron’s riddle for him when they grow up.
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