Researchers have uncovered the diet enjoyed by sailors during the Napoleonic wars. The findings, published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology
, showed that salt beef, sea biscuits and weevils were amongst the foods consumed by Nelson's navy.
The research, led by Professor Mark Pollard from the University of Oxford, focused on the bones of 80 sailors buried in Royal Naval Hospital cemeteries in Plymouth and Portsmouth. The seamen served from the mid-seventeenth to the mid-eighteenth centuries.
"An isotopic analysis of bone collagen from the recovered skeletons allowed us to reconstruct average dietary consumption," said Professor Pollard. "By comparing these findings to primary document evidence we can build a more accurate picture of life in Nelson's navy."
The team's analysis shows that the diet of sailors was consistent with contemporary records, thus validating the historical interpretation of sailors' diets. The findings also pose implications for the amount of marine protein which can be isotopically detected in human diets.
The bones even indicated whereabouts the sailors had served. However, despite identifying locations as diverse as the West Indies and the Mediterranean, the team found that due to the strict consistency of rations, sailors' diets converged into a 'naval average'. The team found that sailors buried in Plymouth spent more time around the coast of America, which was also consistent with records.
The archaeologists also compared the isotopic data with research on 18 individuals from the Mary Rose; a 16th
Century royal flagship that sank just outside Portsmouth harbour in 1545. Chemical analysis revealed that sailors' diets did not undergo significant change in the 200 years between the Elizabethan and Georgian eras.
"This is one of the first studies to use this technique to examine human populations in the historic period," explained Professor Pollard. "Our findings demonstrate the benefits of using forensic methods to complement documentary records."