Carbon Dating of the CF2 bones - are they the remains of Eleanor Talbot?

As published in this month's Ricardian Bulletin.

Thanks to the help of Annmarie Hayek and the Norfolk Branch of the Richard III Society, who helped me to amass the required funding, I recently commissioned Beta Analytic to carry out carbon dating of four samples from the CF2 bones in Norwich. In 1996, based on other evidence (including age at death, social status, and burial location), I had put forward the idea that the bones in question might possibly be the remains of Edward IV’s partner, Lady Eleanor Talbot. I therefore hoped that carbon dating might support my belief that the CF2 remains belonged to Eleanor, by confirming that the owner of the bones in question had indeed died in 1468. However, carbon dating is not always absolutely conclusive in terms of what it reveals, and various issues can affect the results.

As they were initially sent to me (and to the Castle Museum in Norwich) the Beta Analytic test results appeared to suggest that the CF2 bones might date from the fourteenth century - an earlier period than Eleanor Talbot’s death date. I am not a scientific expert in respect of carbon dating. However, I am aware that ingestion of carbon from marine sources can increase the radiocarbon age measured in bones and tissues. This is due to the incorporation of old carbon from ancient limestone sources present in sea water. The same effect can occur in freshwater carbon sources when those waters are exposed to limestone bedrock or fed by old water from springs.

Thus, because seafood contains high levels of carbon, the eating of seafood can cause confusion in respect of the carbon dating of human remains, making the date of death appear to have been somewhat earlier than it actually was. A notable value also provided by Beta Analytic, called Delta-15N (aka d15N, δ15N), can be used to qualitatively assess for the presence of a significant marine diet component. The values measured in the CF2 samples were indeed consistent with a significant marine diet component, providing some evidence that the ages offered by the carbon dating may be older than the time of death.

Actually I had encountered this problem in respect of the carbon dating of human remains on a previous occasion. The carbon dating of the Richard III bones found by the Looking For Richard Project in Leicester in 2012 was initially reported to indicate that those bones also dated from an earlier period than Richard’s death date. But on that occasion it subsequently emerged that - probably because he was a religious man - Richard III had consumed much more seafood than carbon daters perceive as the norm.

Of course, in the pre-Reformation period, all the inhabitants of England probably ate fish every Friday, and also throughout the weeks of Lent, because on those days meat was ruled out by the church.[1] However, the evidence of some household accounts shows that the more religious also regularly ate fish on other days – for example, on Wednesdays and Saturdays.[2] In that context it is significant that Eleanor Talbot was a very religious lady. Indeed, towards the end of her short life she became linked as a lay woman to the Carmelite Order in Norwich – where her body was buried in 1468, and where the CF2 bones were found in the 1950s.

Therefore, after receiving the initial carbon dating results as they presented them, I sent to Beta Analytic fifteenth-century evidence from the household accounts of Eleanor’s parents. For example, I showed Beta that in the year 1417-1418 the Talbot household consumed more than 55,581 items of fish food, but only 271 items of meat! [3] That and all the other evidence I sent them revealed clearly that Eleanor’s family had always consumed a large quantity of seafood.

I then received this response from Beta Analytic:

Very interesting that you have detailed dietary information.

The aquatic food chain can contain old carbon which can be passed on up the line.  The δ15N [nitrogen level] is interpreted to represent the protein diet of the individual.  The values for the 4 samples are indicative of a marine diet component according to the attached graph [see below for my summary of the contents of the graph].  Note that the graph is not necessarily universally applicable. We see many results (as with your 4) where the δ13C value associated with the high δ15N value is not represented on the graph.  Nonetheless, with what you know and the general acceptance of this data, I think it’s reasonable to interpret a marine diet component being represented in the results.

This would suggest the ages [i.e. initial carbon dating results offered by Beta] are older than the time of death.  Unfortunately there is no way to apply an absolute age correction without having other material in association with the bones dated, and then using the difference as the correction factor.  If you had any associated seeds, berries, textiles or twigs to date it would perhaps provide for some correction values.

The graph I was sent indicates the presence of a marine diet component if a sample reveals a δ15N value greater than 11 (i.e. 11 per mil, 11 o/oo). In the case of all four CF2 samples the δ15N values were between 13.8 and 14.4. It therefore seems that in the case of CF2 seafood was regularly consumed. Thus the carbon dates revealed by the tests may be older than the true time of death.

So, in summary, based on the information I sent Beta in respect of Talbot seafood consumption, and given Beta Analytic’s acceptance of the notion that ‘it’s reasonable to interpret a marine diet component being represented in the [CF2] results’, the carbon dating neither confirms nor refutes the CF2 individual to be of Eleanor Talbot’s death date.  However, there is a strong inference that she could be.

One way to try to help confirm this hypothesis might now be to attempt carbon dating the wood from CF2’s coffin. Of course the age of the timber could also be older than 1468.  However, if carbon dates on the timber were younger than the carbon dates on the bones, that would provide evidence that the carbon dates on the bones are older than the time of death of the individual, which would better support the possibility that CF2 was Eleanor Talbot.

 I am very grateful to all those who helped me set up the carbon dating of the CF2 samples. I am also very grateful to Darden Hood of Beta Analytic, and to my old friend David Perry, who both helped me write this report!

Left: The skull and some bones of CF2 during their recent re-examination in Norwich.

Right: Facial reconstruction of the CF2 skull which appears to confirm resemblance to Eleanor Talbot’s relatives, but from which costume of any specific period is omitted. Commissioned by the author from Caroline Erolin, Medical and Forensic Artist, Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification, University of Dundee.

[1] J. Ashdown-Hill, Richard III’s ‘Beloved Cousyn’, Stroud 2009, p. 119.

[2] M.K. Dale & V.B. Redstone, eds., The Household Book of Dame Alice de Bryene of Acton Hall, Suffolk, September 1412 – September 1413, Ipswich 1931, reprinted Bungay 1984, pp. 18-28.

[3] B. Ross, ed., Accounts of the Stewards of the Talbot Household at Blakemere 1392-1425, Keele 2003.