Isotopes and new norms: investigating the emergence of early modern UK breastfeeding practices at St. Nicholas Kirk, Aberdeen

Kate Britton* (Corresponding Author), Ellen McManus-Fry, Alison Cameron, Paul Duffy, Edouard Masson-MacLean, Orsolya Czere, Nicola Smith, Judith Stones, Arthur Winfield, Gundula Müldner

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Citations (Scopus)
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In this study, we aim to extend the chronological, geographical and societal scope of previous bioarchaeological research on infant diet and age-at-weaning in Britain in the past through the analysis of the large Medieval and post-Medieval skeletal assemblage from St. Nicholas Kirk, Aberdeen, Scotland. Stable carbon and nitrogen isotope data were obtained from rib collagen from 67 sub-adults across the two phases, and were compared to mean adult female dietary isotope values. Nitrogen isotope data were modelled using the R Package WARN, along with previously published datasets, to provide quantitative age estimates for the commencement and completion of weaning at St. Nicholas Kirk and other Medieval and post-Medieval sites. Data from Phase A (12th-15th century AD) suggest that breastfeeding may have continued up to and beyond the age of 2 years, likely in combination with other foods. This complements previously published data from urban and rural Medieval contexts in England, highlighting similarities in infant feeding practices across very different contemporary populations. Data from post-Medieval Phase B at St. Nicholas Kirk (15th-18th century AD) give new insights into early modern period breastfeeding and weaning practices, indicating that weaning commenced soon
after birth and was completed relatively early (within a year). These data bridge the gap between previously published studies on Medieval and late 18th/19th century populations from the British Isles, and suggest trends observed at later urban sites may be rooted in preceding centuries, although the underlying reasons for this change are difficult to elucidate. Contributing factors may include the social and religious changes that occurred in the post-reformation period, such as the decrease in use of wet nurses; changes in the availability and
acceptability of artificial feeding; increased urbanism; and even changes in the socio-economic status of those interred in the Kirk.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)510-522
Number of pages13
JournalInternational journal of osteoarchaeology
Issue number5
Early online date21 May 2018
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2018

Bibliographical note

This work partially supported by a small grant from the Royal Society of Edinburgh to KB, in association with the Mither Kirk Project. Special thanks to John Edwards and Aberdeen City Council; Chris Croly and Jeff Oliver (Aberdeen); Jackson Armstrong and William Hepburn (Aberdeen;; and Takumi Tsutaya (Kyoto University).


  • weaning
  • medieval
  • post-medieval
  • urbanism
  • diet
  • stable isotopes
  • bone collagen


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