We explore whether the rest-frame near-ultraviolet spectral region, observable in high-redshift galaxies via optical spectroscopy, contains sufficient information to allow the degeneracy between age and metallicity to be lifted. We do this by first testing the ability of evolutionary synthesis models to reclaim the correct metallicity when fitted to the near-ultraviolet spectra of F stars of known (subsolar and supersolar) metallicity. F stars are of particular interest because the rest-frame near-ultraviolet spectra of the oldest known elliptical galaxies at z > 1 appear to be dominated by F stars near to the main-sequence turn-off.
We find that, in the case of the F stars, where the Hubble Space Telescope ultraviolet spectra have a high signal-to-noise ratio, fitting models in which the metallicity is allowed to vary as a free parameter is rather successful at deriving the correct metallicity. As a result, the estimated turn-off ages of these stars yielded by model-fitting are well constrained. Encouraged by this we have fitted these same variable-metallicity models to the deep, optical spectra of the z similar or equal to 1.5 mJy radio galaxies 53W091 and 53W069 obtained with the Keck telescope. While the age and metallicity are not so easily constrained for these galaxies, we find that even when metallicity is allowed as a free parameter, the best estimates of their ages are still greater than or equal to3 Gyr, with ages younger than 2 Gyr now strongly excluded. Furthermore, we find that a search of the entire parameter space of metallicity and star formation history using MOPED leads to the same conclusion. Our results therefore continue to argue strongly against an Einstein-de Sitter universe, and favour a Lambda-dominated universe in which star formation in at least these particular elliptical galaxies was completed somewhere in the redshift range z = 3-5.