The use of stable carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios to determine differences in diet between men and women from Medieval (12th–13th century CE) Bergen, Norway (2015/30)

In February 2015, The National Committee for Research Ethics on Human Remains received a request from Monica Nordanger Enehaug, master student in Palaeopathology at University of Durham, UK, concerning her project "The use of stable carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios to determine differences in diet between men and women from Medieval (12th–13th century CE) Bergen, Norway". For this research project, 30 individuals in total, from the cemetery at Mariakirken in Bergen will be part of the study. About 200 mg of bone is needed from one rib per individual in order to conduct a stable isotope analysis. The human bone assemblage has already been studied by the osteoarchaeologist Katharina Lorvik, and the applicant has chosen to sample from individuals that Lorvik have described with regard to morphology, sex, pathology etc. The study will thus contribute to research already conducted on these excavated human remains, and the project aims to increase our understanding of the medieval period with regards to diet and differential access to food between men and women in Bergen.

The difference in ratios of stable nitrogen and carbon isotopes varies in different food classes, and in the consumer it is those differences that we can measure. Stable isotope analysis is the only method that provides information about diet on an individual level. To reach a conclusion regarding diet and whether or not there is a difference between males and females, stable isotope analysis is the best method as of yet. The analysis will be conducted at Durham University. The Department of Archaeology at Durham University has a suitable laboratory to enable the applicant to process samples for stable isotope analysis, and Dr. Andrew Millard's expertise and knowledge of reconstructing diet, using carbon and nitrogen analysis, will guaranty the success of this study.

This research will be handed in as the applicant's Master's dissertation on 4th September 2015. Research, analysis and results will be shared with Bryggen Museum. The Museum will have full access to all the work and if desired, a presentation of results will be given. The University of Bergen has already granted permission to the material. In their letter, they say that they are in general reluctant to allow master students to take destructive samples from bones themselves, as they do not expect a student at that level to possess sufficient training to do so. However, according to Enehaug, she has taken the relevant courses in sampling techniques. Furthermore, her supervisor, Dr Andrew Millard, has confirmed, by letter, that she has the necessary skills and that he personally will review the sampling processes with her and ensure that she is equipped with appropriate tools for sampling. Therefore, the University has agreed that she will be allowed to take the samples herself, but under the supervision of the staff at the Osteological Collection.

The Committee has no hesitation in supporting the application. The salient ethical issue in this case is that the project requires destructive sampling of the material. However, the destructive sampling is very limited, and it is very likely that the project generate new insights. The project is limited in scope, with a clear aim and a good understanding of techniques and how to interpret the results. It will be carried out at one of the top universities in Britain, under the supervision of one of their top experts in the field. The University in Bergen has already given the student access to the necessary material.

With regards,

Ingegerd Holand (e.f.)
For The National Committee for Research Ethics on Human Remains 

Vidar Enebakk
Director, The National Committee for Research Ethics in the Social Sciences and the Humanities