SSCIP Biannual Lecture by Creighton Avery (McMaster University)

Report by Dr Ellen Kendall

After a very quiet 2020, SSCIP held its first online Biannual Lecture of 2021 on Tuesday 18th May, welcoming Creighton Avery from McMaster University, Canada. Creighton is currently a PhD candidate researching biological and social elements of coming of age in the Roman Empire. For the biannual lecture, she presented some of her findings on childhood diet and social age in Roman Gaul in her talk ‘Gendered Childhood Diets: An Analysis of Dietary Stable Isotopes in Tooth Dentine in Roman Gaul‘.

Creighton’s talk addressed the pitfalls of studying social age in the past, noting that many of the sources of information around social age focus on elite male social stages, which may not be applicable to other social strata, or to women. She also acknowledged difficulties with inferring social age status from mortuary evidence, where preservation, the osteological paradox, and the unknown sex of juveniles may frustrate attempts to understand social identity. As an alternative, Creighton championed assessing childhood social transitions through analysis of dietary stable isotopes in adult skeletal remains.

In contrast to a narrow approach to studying childhood diet, which has primarily focused on identifying the duration of breastfeeding in past cultures, Creighton suggested that a broader approach to childhood diet as a marker of social attainment, when used alongside literary, historical, and archaeological evidence, could circumvent many of the issues that currently vex archaeologists. Analysis of teeth, which form in childhood but may be retained throughout life in the permanent dentition, offers a time capsule of childhood diet in the adult skeleton, which may better offer contextual clues to social identity, sex, and gender while avoiding issues around the osteological paradox. Creighton analysed carbon and nitrogen stable isotopes in 46 teeth using high-resolution incremental sampling to create a timeline of dietary changes between early childhood and adulthood for individuals at Lisieux-Michelet (4-5thc.), in northern France. Her findings suggest that protein generally increased in the diet up to age 14 for both sexes. Following that age, for adolescent males a drop in nitrogen occurred which suggested a decrease in protein in the diet, or a shift to reliance on protein sources from lower on the food chain.

Photo credit: LC Avery

Creighton aligned this data with what was known about gendered expectations of young men and women, particularly with the transition of adolescent males to military or apprenticeship training. These changes may have produced changes in the diet of young males which were not mirrored in young women, who remained at home while preparing for marriage, and underlines potential differences in the experience of adolescence for male and female youth.  

Creighton’s research provides important evidence of the potential for science-based archaeological approaches, such as stable isotope analysis, to work alongside more traditional approaches to social archaeology. Her talk provides a valuable contribution to understanding dietary evidence for gendered social transitions in Roman Gaul, and we were thrilled to have welcomed her to our first talk of 2021.

A link to the presentation can now be found here, and please consider subscribing to our new YouTube channel to keep up to date with future content.

To follow updates on Creighton’s research, please see –
Web page:
Twitter: @LCreightonAvery