The 82nd Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2013)


Synchrotron light identifies the biogenic uptake of metacinnabar in a bone sample from an Antigua, West Indies, Royal Naval Hospital Cemetery (1793-1822)

TREENA M. SWANSTON1, TAMARA VARNEY2, IAN COULTHARD3, GRAHAM N. GEORGE4, INGRID J. PICKERING4, REG MURPHY5 and DAVID M.L. COOPER1.

1Department of Anatomy & Cell Biology, University of Saskatchewan, 2Department of Anthropology, Lakehead University, 3n/a, Canadian Light Source, 4Department of Geological Sciences, University of Saskatchewan, 5n/a, National Parks Antigua

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Mercury is a heavy metal that exists in three categories of species: elemental mercury, inorganic mercury, and organic mercury. Elemental mercury and inorganic mercury compounds have been used for centuries to treat ailments such as syphilis and yellow fever. As part of a larger study on lead poisoning in colonial Antigua, a mass spectroscopic analysis (ICP-MS) of bone elements from 17 individuals once buried in a Royal Naval Hospital cemetery (1793-1822) revealed a high level of mercury in one individual. Analyzing trace elements that are identified within an archaeological context has been a challenge due to the difficulty of determining whether the element was present in the environment or associated with a biological event during life. Synchrotron radiation X-ray fluorescence (SR-XRF) was employed to determine whether the mercury was present in the bone as a result of environmental contamination or due to biogenic uptake. The SR-XRF study revealed an osteon with mercury-labelled lamellae, which is indicative that the mercury was biogenic. The synchrotron radiation X-ray absorption spectroscopic (SR-XAS) technique of X-ray Absorption Near Edge Structure (XANES) was used to determine that the mercury was present in the bone tissue as an inorganic mercuric sulfide in the beta structural form otherwise known as metacinnabar. While this inorganic form is not as toxic as organic mercury, there may have been an impact on the individual's health.

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