In the second part of this blog post about Stable Isotope Analysis, Emily explains how  Richard’s bones can tell us what he ate and drank and where he lived.

What did Richard eat?

Carbon and nitrogen isotopes can tell us about an individual’s diet. The nitrogen isotope ratio can tell us the trophic level of the individual – this means where an organism is within the food chain. For example, carnivores are at a higher level than herbivores. This can also tell us whether an individual’s diet was meat-based or not. The isotopic carbon ratio is used to distinguish between marine and terrestrial carbon sources and tell us whether a person’s main source of protein in their diet was fish or meat.

In the first post about Radiocarbon dating I explained how Richard’s diet was rich in fish and seafood, and how this affected the Carbon-14 content of his remains. The medieval church calendar included many fast days, when eating meat was forbidden. Today we may still give up treats for Lent, but in Richard’s lifetime, the periods of Lent, Advent and a couple of days a week were ‘fast’ days, when meat was off the menu, and those who could afford to ate fish or seafood instead.

The carbon and nitrogen isotope make-up from Richard’s teeth was analysed to find what he would have eaten during his childhood. Whilst there was a general increase in the isotopic carbon and nitrogen ratios during Richard’s childhood, there was a drop between the ages of 4 and 6. This roughly coincides with the increase in oxygen and strontium values, suggesting that Richard’s move to the Welsh Marches was accompanied by a change in diet. Whilst at Ludlow Castle, it is likely that Richard would have eaten less meat and fish.

Interestingly, the ratio of isotopic nitrogen in the rib was found to be higher than in the femur. As I mentioned in my previous post, the femur has a slower turnover rate compared to the ribs. The femur averages the last 10-15 years of an individual’s life, telling us about Richard’s lifestyle before he became king. As the rib is replenished every 2 years, this would represent the last few years of Richard’s life when he was king. The increase in nitrogen values suggests that Richard likely consumed more luxurious foods, such as wildfowl and freshwater fish, when he became king.

The isotopic oxygen ratio was also higher in the rib relative to the femur. The increase in oxygen values suggests that Richard moved to a higher rainfall region of England during the last few years of his life. However, Richard’s movements during his reign have been well documented and it is known that he resided in the east of England. The change in the oxygen isotope ratio may instead be due to Richard drinking more wine after he became king! The nature of medieval kingship meant that Richard would have hosted and attended many lavish feasts and banquets, perhaps explaining the increase in luxurious foods and wines in his diet.