Following on a successful session last year, I’m offering another session on Medieval Landscapes of Disease this year at Kalamazoo.
In recognition that diseases are manifestations of their environment, this session seeks papers that place medieval diseases within their environmental context. Just as a seed must be placed in good soil to grow, infectious disease requires a permissive environment to develop into an epidemic (or epizootic) and an ideal environment to bloom into a pandemic or panzootic. I am open to all manner of studies and disciplines that address these issues.
Examples of acceptable topics:
Historic impacts of epidemics and/or epizootics
Endemic disease in medieval environments
Environmental causes of disease such as malnutrition or industrial pollution related disease
Health effects of human-animal interactions
Applications of the One Health Approach to medieval disease
Archaeological assessments of human health and disease
Landscape alterations intended to improve human or animal health
Ecology of the built environment
Abstracts of no more than 300 words and the Participant Information Form should be sent to Michelle Ziegler at ZieglerM@slu.edu by September 15. Pre-submission queries are welcome.
Paleomicrobiology and isotopic analysis has the ability to completely change what we know of past infectious diseases. A study published this month on a fifth century Anglo-Saxon skeleton is one of the most complete I have read.
Lesions on skeletons found at Great Chesterfield in Essex, England, suggested possible leprosy. To confirm this diagnosis, they chose one skeleton that is nearly complete and in good shape for further analysis.
The skeleton (GC96) shown to the right is of a 25 to 35-year-old male buried in modestly furnished grave in an area of the cemetery with other visibly disabled people. Radiocarbon dating places these remains at AD 415-545, and thus Migration Age for the Anglo-Saxons. The Great Chesterford cemetery is located roughly in an approximate border area between the kingdom of the East Saxons and East Angles at the site of a ford of the River Cam (or Granta) downriver from Cambridge. He was buried with a slender knife secured by a belt with an oval buckle. Over his left shoulder, a spear and a conical ferrule were found. Lesions consistent with lepromatous leprosy were found on the lower legs with extensive remodeling of the right foot. A bronze shoelace tag found near the right foot suggests the diseased foot covered with a shoe. Given the lesions found on the foot and lower legs, the ferrule may have capped a walking staff. His facial bones were missing losing a common, distinctive site of leprosy lesions. The disorganized and rough appearance of new bone growth suggest that the lesion was active at the time of death.
Selections of bone were taken and powdered to extract aDNA and for lipid analysis. Mycobacterium species that cause leprosy and tuberculosis have distinctive lipid profiles that have been successfully extracted and identified by archaeological remains in the past. Their analysis of lipids from the bones confirmed the presence of Mycobacterium leprae and excluded the presence of Mycobacterium tuberculosis. The aDNA analysis confirmed identified the presence of Mycobacterium leprae strain 3I-1, that has been previously found in later medieval England, Denmark and Sweden. Inskip et al (2015) suggest a possible Scandinavian origin for the strain. The VNTR analysis used to produce ‘genetic fingerprints’ shows that this strain of M. leprae is unique among other ancient isolates and should be useful in the comparative analysis of other early remains. Other remains in the same cemetery have similar lesions and will be investigated in the future.
Isotopic analysis of his tooth enamel provide an indication of childhood location and adult nutrition. Carbon analysis showed a diet of primarily C3 plants, consistent with southern Britain. Analysis of oxygen and strontium isotopes suggest he did not spend his childhood in the area of Great Chesterford.
The combination of the two isotopes gives his best probable origin to be between north-central France and the north-central Germany, in other words, the region of the Anglo-Saxon homeland. A continental origin coupled with the dating range between 415 and 545 suggests that he was part of the migration of the peoples who later called themselves Anglo-Saxons. He was likely no more Scandinavian than any of the other migration era ‘English’. This is further supported by a relatively high level of leprosy (by osteological analysis) in medieval city of Schleswig, the very area where the Angles are most specifically located. Further analysis of migration era remains should refine the origins of this strain of leprosy and determine its frequency.
Excavations for the Crossrail Extension project discovered the second major Black Death cemetery in London in 2013. This week the first peer-reviewed publication of findings from the site appeared (in press). As a rescue excavation in the midst of a construction project, the site had to be quickly surveyed for the extent of the cemetery and this is what is contained in this publication.
This site is part of 13 acres leased by Sir Walter de Mauny from St Bartholomew’s Priory for an emergency cemetery for plague victims in 1349 AD. The site has been used for a variety of purposes over the centuries and currently is a four acre green space called Charterhouse square. The site is graphically displayed below with the locations of later structures.
The initial discovery came in a shaft just to the southwest of the Charterhouse Square. There they found three layers of graves with a total of 25 bodies lacking signs of trauma and with pottery shards from 1270-1350 AD. Subsequent radiocarbon dating and aDNA analysis confirmed that they were victims of the Black Death.
The surveys conducted over just two days were able to outline the broad contours of features at the site. These included a 15th century building, a priory kitchen, a probable World War II submerged emergency water tank, and a possible ditch and bank along the cemetery that is mentioned in descriptions. They believe that a disturbed area in the southwest corner represents about 200 individual graves, although only excavation can confirm these graves. They concluded that their ability to detect medieval objects in such an intensely used urban area suggests these methods are a good option for similar future situations.
The scans also revealed some surprises. There are not as many graves as descriptions suggest should have been there, though bodies may be more dense that suggested by the scans. They also did not find any large pits of stacked bodies. This indicates that even during the height of the Black Death, many people were still buried in individual graves. Graves were found in three phases with layers of clay-rich earth in between perhaps in an attempt to seal the graves. These scans should allow them to target future excavations to areas with a high probability of dense graves.