Relics cluster publish work on mysterious head of hair found in Romsey Abbey
Sunday 09 April, 2017
This week, Jamie Cameron and Thibaut Devièse, members of the Relics Cluster at Keble College, published a research paper in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports on the radiocarbon dating of a head of hair found in 1839 underneath the abbey of the market town of Romsey in Hampshire, UK.
The hair, as well as a piece of wood on which it rested, were found in 1939 inside a lead chest buried underneath the Norman abbey. Ever since a number of stories have been associated with where the hair originated. Growing up near the abbey, Cameron remembers these stories from a young age*. Previous records suggested the lead case was buried during Roman occupation around A.D. 426; however as a result of the radiocarbon dating by Cameron and Devièse, it is now 95.4% probable that the body was interred between the end of the ninth century and the beginning of the 12th (i.e. late Saxon or immediately post-Conquest). The new data suggests different burial customs prevailed at this time and coffins made of lead or stone might have been used for important individuals such as clerics. Carbon and nitrogen stable isotope analysis of the hair itself suggested that the person to which it belonged had a diet rich in fish which might be commensurate with an ecclesiastical status. Further analysis of a dark coloured substance adhering to the hair using a technique called gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS) showed it to be a resin from a Pinaceae tree. This might have been part of a funerary ritual, or something that was used in life.
While the date is informative, the identity of the individual remains unknown. Previous suggestions as to the identity have included St Elfleda, thought to have been the daughter of the Abbey's founder, King Edward the Elder (r. 901–924 CE) and granddaughter of Alfred the Great (r. 868–899 CE), and the 10th century abbesses of Romsey St Merwenna and St Ethelflaeda. The date range produced here is not adequately precise to rule out any of these claims.
Romsey Abbey, Hampshire U.K.
Access the published article here
*Last October Cameron gave a talk at Keble about this work. Read here
a summary of this event.