Strontium Isotope Analysis in Hungary

Isotopes are atoms of a certain element that have the same number of protons but a different number of neutrons, resulting in different masses. Isotopic analysis is the practice in which isotopes are separated and studied on the basis of their differences in mass. This study is conducted through the use of mass spectrometry (Bronk, McCarthy 2008). Because unstable isotopes tend to degrade over time, stable isotopes are favored in isotope analysis. This is valuable to archaeologists because they can use it to study the movement of populations, diets, and past environments through ancient human remains (Blakemore 2019). 

Image 1. How Strontium enters the human body through specific diets. From the article “Isotope Analysis” published by PBS. 

Strontium is a popular subject for isotopic analysis in archaeology because it can determine “residential origins and migration patterns of ancestral humans” and is incorporated into the human body through diets (Dvoracek). Strontium isotopes can be obtained through tooth enamel and bones. The study of these isotopes is shown to be able to identify “more subtle shifts in prehistoric human mobility” (Giblin 2008). The analysis of strontium isotopes was employed on the Great Hungarian Plain, Alföld, to study the time period from the end of the Neolithic to the Copper Age. For this, Sr-86 and Sr-87 were analyzed. Before the application of strontium isotope analysis, archaeologists had reason to believe that there was a change in interaction between the people and the environment. For example, there is evidence that societies became increasingly more mobile, which could have been due to a transition to becoming an agro-pastoral economy, one in which “social organization [is] based on the growing of crops and the raising on livestock as the primary means of economic activity” (Giblin 2008; Hakansson, 1998).

The results of the strontium-isotope study in Hungary show that there was a big change in how societies interacted with the environment between the Neolithic Age and the Copper Age. The individuals from the late Neolithic population were proven to have less variability in their strontium isotopes compared to the Copper Age population, who had more variation (Giblin 2008). Archaeologists believe that this dramatic change in strontium presence can be attributed to a transformation in ways of life. In the late Neolithic period, settlements were large and  concentrated; contrastingly, Copper Age settlements were smaller and spread out over a greater distance. The change in social structures is consequently believed to have changed the mobility of societies, which further changed methods of agriculture and obtaining sustenance (Giblin 2008). 

Image 2. Results from the isotope analysis of Sr-86 and Sr-87 of people from the Late Neolithic period to the Copper Age. Circles = Late Neolithic; upward triangle = Early Copper Age; squares = Middle Copper Age. From the article “Strontium isotope analysis of Neolithic and Copper Age populations on the Great Hungarian Plain” (Giblin 2008). 

In the late Neolithic period, there was a dramatic increase in large game hunting and the consumption of cattle. In the Copper Age, hunting became less popular as there was a shift to a more systematic way of raising stock such as pigs, sheep, and goats. After the analysis of pig strontium isotopes, it has been determined that they have a wider range of values. The increased consumption of pigs in the Copper Age population’s diet would contribute to their higher level of strontium-isotope variability (Giblin 2008).


“Isotope Analysis.” PBS. Public Broadcasting Service. Accessed November 13, 2022.

Dvoracek, Doug. “Strontium Isotope Analysis .” Strontium Isotope Analysis ” Center for Applied Isotope Studies (CAIS). Accessed November 13, 2022.

Giblin , Julia Irene. “Strontium Isotope Analysis of Neolithic and Copper Age Populations on the Great Hungarian Plain.” Academia . Accessed November 13, 2022.

Giblin, Julia Irene. “Strontium Isotope Analysis of Neolithic and Copper Age Populations on the Great Hungarian Plain.” Journal of Archaeological Science. Academic Press, October 7, 2008.

Blakemore, Erin. “How Your Bones Record Where You Grew up and What You Ate.” Culture. National Geographic, May 3, 2021.,high%20fevers%20as%20a%20child.

Additional Content:

Pollen Analysis and the Ancient Egyptians

Pollen analysis, also known as palynology, was developed in 1916 by Swedish geologist Lennart von Post, and is the study of fossilized pollen to reconstruct the conditions of past climates and vegetation. Because the practice encompasses many scientific fields (geology, ecology, climatology, etc…), it has been considered one of the most valuable dating methods in archaeology. Palynology is mostly utilized to determine changes in vegetation over time, which further aids in chronology, the ordering of events in which they occurred in time.

There are certain types of archaeological sites that prove most fit for pollen analysis to be conducted. Larger basins are most ideal because they usually have more accumulated sediment with longer cores, meaning that a sample with a larger time frame would be taken. Acidic peat bogs and lake beds are also beneficial in the preservation of pollen, and it is most poorly preserved in open sites or exposed areas. There are some other limitations. For instance, constructing a completely accurate account of past climates and surroundings is not possible.

Image 1. Sediment is sampled, the pollen is separated from the sediment matrix, and then it is analyzed to reconstruct vegetation history.

Even with newer research methods being developed relatively often, palynology proves invaluable in present-day archaeology. Researchers applying the method in Cairo, Egypt have discovered evidence that there was a branch of the Nile River, now dried up, that aided in the construction of the Pyramids of Giza. The archaeologists sampled sediment cores, and in their matrixes, recovered fossilized pollen. After further analysis, the pollen was determined to be from local grasses and marsh plants that boarded the edges of lakes and rivers. Because of this, it is believed that water levels of the Nile River’s Khufu branch in around 2550 B.C.E. were high enough to transport construction materials such as limestone and granite to the sites of the pyramids. 

This application of pollen analysis has also aided archaeologists in their research about how the ancient Egyptians traveled using the Nile River. Before the use of palynology, researchers did not have a complete understanding of the environment and surroundings of the Nile River and any land involved. It has greatly contributed to the further understanding of the Nile’s floodplain 4,500 years ago, and the further investigation of hypotheses such as the “fluvial-port-complex” hypothesis. This proposes that the ancient Egyptians, in order to transport materials, created a canal from the Khufu branch to the site where the pyramids were being constructed. There is evidence that they dredged basins to the bottom of the Nile River and used seasonal flood waters as a hydraulic lift to transport heavy materials. 

Image 2. Map of the Nile River

Without pollen analysis, archaeologists, much like those working in Cairo, would not have much understanding of former environments and landscapes. Even though it has some limitations, it still proves extremely useful in present-day archaeology in regards to aiding in chronology and research of past landscapes.

Further Readings:,role%20within%20the%20Egyptian%20State.,formed%20basins%20of%20various%20sizes.


Renfrew, Colin, and Paul Bahn. 2018. Archaeology Essentials: Theories, Methods, and Practice. Fourth edition. Thames & Hudson.

Kneller, Margaret. “Pollen Analysis.” SpringerLink. Springer Netherlands, January 1, 2009.

Saraceni, Jessica Esther. “Pollen Study Tracks Ancient Flow of Egypt’s Nile River.” Archaeology Magazine, September 1, 2022.

Handwerk, Brian. “Pyramids of Giza: National Geographic.” History. National Geographic, May 4, 2021.,%2C%20and%20Menkaure%20(front).

Sottile, Zoe. “A Now-Dry Branch of the Nile Helped Build Egypt’s Pyramids, New Study Says.” CNN. Cable News Network, September 2, 2022.

“Journey to Egypt.” Best Egypt Tours, Vacations & Nile Cruises 2022/2023 – Journey To Egypt. Accessed September 25, 2022.