Quantitative analysis of human remains from 18th-19th centuries using X-ray fluorescence techniques: The mysterious high content of mercury in hair

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In this work, we report the unusual concentration of mercury in the hair of an individual buried in the 18th to mid-19th centuries and the comparison with the elemental composition of other remains from the same individual. Two energy dispersive X-ray fluorescence (EDXRF) setups, one with tri-axial geometry and the second one with micro-beam capabilities and a vacuum system, for light elements detection, have been used. Quantitative evaluation of the obtained spectra were made by fundamental parameters and winAXIL program by compare mode method. The levels of Hg in the hair of buried samples presented a concentration over 5% (w/w), a significantly lower presence of this element in the cranium, and no Hg in the remaining organs. Furthermore, there was no evidence of Hg in the burial soil, which has been also analyzed. From this result, we could conclude that the possibility of post-mortem contamination from the burial surroundings is very unlikely. The obtained results are indicative of the apparent use of a mercury-based compound for medical purposes, most likely lice infestation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)26-30
Number of pages5
JournalJournal Of Trace Elements In Medicine And Biology
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2016



  • Buried remains
  • Mercury
  • Pediculosis

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