Lynn Voedisch: The Phantom Ponytail

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Fantastic World

Back in 1839, some workmen struck a lead box and dug it up. It turned out to be a coffin—for a head of hair, minus the head. At first the workers threw the hair away until some thought it should be examined. The workers were mystified that there was no skull, just hair. Yet the long hair, done up in a plait, was resting on an oak “pillow.” They assumed it was a head of female hair—although hairstyles have changed through the ages and it easily could have been a man’s coif. Because the hair was found at Romsey Abbey in Southhampton, England, many thought it was the hair of an abbess or a saint.

Young Jamie  Cameron, 23, and archeological scientist saw the head of hair when he was a child.

“I thought one day when I’m grown up I might be in a position to be able to try and work out who this person might have been,” he told the BBC. And just so, after studying at Cambridge and Oxford, he is trying to answer that question.

Dressed in a full body suit worn by forensic police officers, Cameron opened the display case at the Abbey, took the hair and cut off a small sample. Then he passed it to a team of archeological  scientists at Oxford’s “Relics Cluster.” They carry out tests on all sorts of ancient objects, including hair.

The scientists put the hair swatch in an oven-like machine for gas chromatography mass spectrometry. Then the respective molecules were shown on a graph.

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Dr. Thibault Deviese, a worker at the research lab for archeology, said that it looks like there was pine resin in the hair, which Cameron says may have come from overseas. Radio-carbon dating suggested a time in the mid to late Saxon era, Cameron said.

The result showed that the person almost certainly died between the years 895 and 1045. They also discovered from the proteins in the hair that the person dined on fish.

Many people would like to think it is St. Ethelfaeda, a local saint, said one of the researchers. But test results haven’t revealed much more. Cameron, however, thinks it is possible to do more intricate DNA analysis in the future.

But the question remains: who wore the phantom ponytail?

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On June 28, 2016
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