Study of rickets in 16th century sailors could aid detection of the disease today
16 Dec 2014



New laser technology investigates bones of sailors who perished on Henry VIII’s ship.



Laser scans a deformed tibia to test for chemical abnormalities
(Credit: UCL)

New laser technology investigates bones of sailors who perished on Henry VIII’s ship

16 December 2014

Scientists have, for the first time, used lasers to analyse the bones from sailors aboard Henry VIII’s ship, the Mary Rose, to find evidence of rickets. The chemical make-up of these ancient bones could help identify the disease in the children of today.

The research was carried out at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital (RNOH) in Stanmore, North London as part of a study by University College London (UCL), the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and The Mary Rose Trust.

The Mary Rose was King Henry VIII’s flagship before it sank in battle on the 19th July 1545, resulting in over four hundred men losing their lives. The environment of the Solent meant that the ship and the sailors were preserved in silt, which helped to keep them in remarkably good condition.

The sailors’ bones were analysed with Raman spectroscopy, a pioneering, non-destructive laser technology, to identify evidence of bone disease. The application of Raman spectroscopy to the study of bone diseases in historical populations is new and the work is published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Cutaway illustration of the Mary Rose  
Cutaway illustration
of the Mary Rose
 (Credit:©Mary Rose Trust)

“Raman spectroscopy has been used to study precious archaeological samples for some time,” said Professor Pavel Matousek from STFC’s Central Laser Facility and one of the research team. “In another sphere, Raman is being used to detect modern bone diseases in humans, in a clinical setting; our group is one of those working on this problem. The present study is the first to combine the two strands, and attempt to use Raman to detect bone disease in ancient bones. Interestingly, some of the chemical information that we obtained from the 16th-century sailors could have a bearing on our studies of rickets in children in the 21st-century. “

Tibia bones were obtained from The Mary Rose Trust, bones that appeared anatomically healthy and bones that were abnormal in shape. The deformations in the abnormal bones were suspected to be due to a metabolic bone disease such as rickets (the poor diet of the average person in the 1500s would have increased the prevalence of rickets). The results of the Raman study confirmed that the abnormally shaped bones did in fact have chemical abnormalities, which could potentially signify the presence of rickets.

Dr Kevin Buckley, another member of the research team from STFC’s Central Laser Facility, sai d,“This small study proves that, in concept, Raman spectroscopy can be used to study bone diseases in historical populations. Work by our group and by others has shown that a number of bone diseases have chemical signatures and the hope is we can go on to study more diseases in more archaeological samples”

The Raman technique shows potential as a tool for understanding the presence and prevalence of metabolic bone disease in historical populations and may have a place in modern-day detection of the condition, with reports earlier this year (link opens in a new window) warning that Britain is seeing a return of Tudor-era diseases.

Dr. Jemma Kerns, RAMAN Clinical Study Manager at UCL and RNOH, one of the scientists who conducted the study, commented: “This is the first time that this laser technology has been used to study bone disease in archaeological human bone. We have identified chemical changes in the bones, without damaging them. There is strong evidence to suggest that many of the sailors had suffered from childhood rickets and we hope to apply the Raman technique to the study of modern day rickets.”

The RAMAN study, led by UCL’s Professor Allen Goodship, was funded as part of a £1.7 million grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. The bones were measured in a laser facility at the Institute of Orthopaedics UCL. The ‘normal’ bones that were analysed as part of the study were supplied by the Vesalius Centre at the University of Bristol. 

Notes to editors

To see BBC coverage of this research please go to the BBC website (link opens in a new window).

To talk with the STFC laser team please contact Marion O’Sullivan, Press Officer, tel: 01235 445627 or 07824 888990.

To talk with the RNOH team please contact 0207 478 7802 and speak with Kelly Mortlock or Jack Storry. Alternatively email the RNOH team.

Contact: Springate, Emma (STFC,RAL,CLF)