Rosie Howard, BSc Archaeology
Rosie Howard, a third-year BSc Archaeology student, graduates this year with her first degree – and her first publishable piece of research. In fact, Rosie has developed a new methodology for extracting and detecting hormones from bone that is likely to be adopted by other archaeologists.
Rosie's research began when she started considering ideas for her dissertation. Keen to develop something new in the field, Rosie worked with Professor Stuart Black and together they identified a largely unexplored area: detecting hormones in bone, and whether hormones such as cortisol, which illustrates stress, could be extracted and analysed. It's work that hasn't been done before with human remains, and Rosie said that while research addressed the topic in the 1980s and '90s, the results were limited because the equipment was not yet advanced enough.
“I tried again by adapting a methodology for looking at cortisol in human hair, which has been used on mummies in Peru. You add methanol to ground-up bone, put it through a series of processes, and then analyse it using a liquid chromatography mass spectrometry machine, which basically separates all the different compounds within the sample and tells you what's there. You can then use computer programming to specifically look for cortisol itself.”
A new methodology
In her quest to find cortisol in bone, Rosie used a lot of model samples at the start – with varying results. After refining her methodology, though, she ran human and animal bones from medieval archaeological samples, as well as animal bones from Polish sites and human bones from a medieval abbey in England – and found success.
“We managed to find detectable levels of cortisol in all of our archaeological samples. We can't say anything about the stress of the individual yet as it's very early days, but it's the first time that it's been detected in human bone from the archaeological period.”
A FOUNDATION FOR FUTURE RESEARCH
While Rosie can't yet say more about the connection between cortisol levels and stress, she aims to continue this research during her master's and PhD studies. She wants to look at stress in populations of the past and compare her findings with stress in modern populations. She may even be able to determine whether our hormone makeup has changed at all.
Already, Rosie's work has interested Reading archaeologists such as Dr Mary Lewis, who wonders whether she can apply Rosie's methodology in her research about puberty.
Dr Stuart Black, Rosie's dissertation supervision, is similarly excited by the potential uses of Rosie's work, and says it could assist him in creating isotopic fingerprints.
“That's a publishable piece of work that Rosie has done. If we can analyse the hormones of past humans, then we can start to relate it to modern life and modern scenarios. We can use the modern system to set the context for the archaeological and interpret the data.”