A braided head of hair found buried beneath a medieval abbey in England has given up some of its secrets, thanks to a scientist's curiosity about the relic, which he first saw when he was a schoolboy.
Jamie Cameron, an archaeological research assistant at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, first visited Romsey Abbey, near the city of Southampton, on a school field trip when he was 7 years old.
Cameron said he became curious about the abbey's display of a brightly colored and braided head of hair, which had been found in a lead casket buried beneath the abbey floor. But at the time, nothing was known about the identity of the hair's owner. [See photos of the mysterious braided hair found at Romsey Abbey]
"The one thing, in particular, that I remember was the preserved head of hair in a display case. I'd never seen anything like it before, and ever since that day, I've wondered who this person might have been," Cameron told Live Science. "It's one reason why I decided to become an archaeologist."
In 1839, gravediggers found the mysteriously preserved head of hair, with small pieces of scalp still attached, beneath the abbey floor, inside a wooden chest within a lead casket and lying on a "pillow" of oak wood.
One of the gravediggers, a Mr. J. Major, later wrote that he had found "a scalp of female hair as bright as any living ladies' hair I have ever seen," while a finger bone also found in the chest "became dust immediately the air came to it."
Romsey Abbey dates from the year 907, when the Saxon King Edward the Elder, a son of Alfred the Great, built a home for a religious community of nuns that included his daughter, Elflaeda.
Two Christian saints are linked to Romsey Abbey: Saint Morwenna, an Irish nun who reformed the abbey under Benedictine rule around 960, and the Saint Ethelflaeda, who re-established the abbey after it was burned down by raiding Danes in 994, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a record of events in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms written by monks from the 9th to the 12th centuries. Tradition relates that Ethelflaeda's saintly acts included singing psalms while standing naked in a nearby river at night.
Although there's speculation that the hair found in 1839 may have belonged to one of these famous women, no inscriptions on the casket or inside it identified the owner. [Holy Dream Team? The Most Notorious Catholic Saints]
But now, the "Romsey braid" is yielding some of its secrets up to science.
Revisiting old curiosities
Almost 15 years after his school visit to Romsey Abbey, Cameron was studying for his Master of Science degree at the University of Oxford’s Research Laboratory for Archaeology when he brought the braid of hair to the attention of the university's "Relics Cluster."
The Relics Cluster — dubbed the "Da Vinci Code Unit" by British newspapers, after the popular novel by author Dan Brown — is an interdisciplinary group of scientists that specializes in testing sacred objects and religious relics.
The unit previously tested fragments of wood purported to be from the True Cross, which is believed to be the cross upon which Jesus was crucified. The group found that the pieces were 1,000 years too young. The scientists also examined a finger bone said to have belonged to John the Baptist, and testing showed the bone indeed came from a Middle Eastern man from the 1st century.
As a master's student, Cameron convinced his colleagues and other members of the Relics Cluster to closely explore the story of the Romsey braid's discovery.
"Together, we were able to carry out this investigation incorporating radiocarbon dating, stable isotope analysis and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry," Cameron said.
The scientists haven't yet identified the owner of the Romsey hair, but they've found several vital clues, Cameron said.
"With the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, we obtained radiocarbon dates for both the hair itself and the oak 'pillow' on which the hair was found," Cameron said. "We can be almost certain that this individual died between 895 and 1123 A.D., and it is also 68 percent likely that they died between the narrower date range of 965 and 1045 A.D."
Cameron said these findings suggested that the hair's owner was buried around the middle of the Late Saxon period in England – a time marked from the death of Alfred the Great in 899 until the Norman Conquest in 1066. [Religious Mysteries: 8 Alleged Relics of Jesus]
Uncovering other uncertainties
Thibaut Devièse, a postdoctoral research assistant at Oxford's Research Laboratory for Archaeology, conducted tests for residues on the hair and found pine resin.
"We cannot be certain whether this had something to do with the funerary ritual or was applied to the hair during life" as a hair treatment, Cameron said.
The investigations also analyzed carbon and nitrogen isotopes in the hair, to learn more about the person's diet.
"This individual probably consumed a significant quantity of fish in their diet. This is interesting because it may indicate that this person was associated with monastic life at Romsey Abbey, as fish was eaten frequently [in the monastery] due to religious restrictions on the consumption of meat," Cameron said.
So far, the tests on the hair haven't been linked it to any of the famous women who lived at Romsey Abbey, but further tests may be able to shed more light on such connections, the researchers said.
"It would be very interesting if we could attempt analysis of ancient DNA preserved in the hair, if any genetic material survives," Cameron said. "In particular, this might allow us to establish whether these are the remains of a man or a woman. It has generally been assumed that these remains belong to a woman based on the hairstyle, but we do not know this for certain yet."
For Cameron, taking part in an archaeological investigation that was inspired by his schoolboy curiosity was a unique experience.
"It felt great to be able to find out a little bit more about something I've been interested in for such a long time. It's amazing how much information we can gain from such a tiny sample of hair," he said. "I'm very grateful I had the opportunity to go back to Romsey and use what I'd learned at university to contribute something new."
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Tom Metcalfe is a freelance journalist and regular Live Science contributor who is based in London in the United Kingdom. Tom writes mainly about science, space, archaeology, the Earth and the oceans. He has also written for the BBC, NBC News, National Geographic, Scientific American, Air & Space, and many others.