What’s in a name?

The post-Roman centuries in Europe have a bit of an identity crisis. If we defined the period from when the Western Emperor was abolished in 480 to the crowning of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas day 800 AD, what would you call it? At times I’ve used all of these names, and a good argument can be made for all of them. I’m curious what my readers prefer.

Plague in 6th century Aschheim and Altenerding, Bavaria

Since I last wrote about Bavaria, the aDNA centers have been busy. With the accepted manuscript of the second new paper available this past week, its time for an update. The fourth paper on Aschheim not only confirmed the first three, but it also produced the first full genome of Yersinia pestis for the Plague of Justinian (Wagner et al, 2014). This paper also confirmed the Bavarian strain’s placement in the phylogeny of Y. pestis. The availability of the first full genome will primarily be important for comparison to newly discovered samples from elsewhere. Using newer technology, the newest paper refined some of the Aschheim sequence and produced a full genome of Y. pestis from a woman buried at Altenerding, about 20 km from Aschheim (Feldman et al, 2016). Radiocarbon dating from both sites places the epidemic in the mid-sixth century; it can not differentiate which specific epidemic ‘wave’.  The Altenerding epidemic was from the same Y. pestis lineage as Aschheim proving that this was a regional epidemic, possibly the same epidemic event. The phylogeny for the first pandemic is still based on a single epidemic from one geographic region, so the time is not yet ripe to use the phylogeny to tell inform us on the transmission or route of the pandemic.

6th cent Bavaria
Map of Roman Bavaria showing the Roman roads with Aschheim and Altenerding marked. The half circle/mound mark designates Roman villas. (modified from the Pelagios project)

It is, however,  time to start thinking a little more about the environment of these sites. They are both located on the Munich gravel plain, foreland (foothills) north of the Alps. Aschheim is located closer to the Alps at an elevation of 500 meters with Altenerding 20 km further north at a lower elevation in small valley formed by a tributary of the River Isar. The Roman road running horizontally across the map runs west to Augsburg, the capital of the Roman province of Raetia Secunda and east to the city of Batavia, a colony in the province of Noricum. The road running by Altenerding would take traffic eventually north toward Regensburg (Casta Regina).

Large water feature is Speichersee lake with a man-made 20th century reservoir used to power hydroelectric plants and serve some of the water needs of the Munich region. As far as I can tell, none of this would have been present in the Late Antique period. The River Isar is the green line to the west of both sites. Munich will later be founded where the road crosses the river from monastic land in about 1158. There was nothing special at the river crossing in the sixth century. Although the road crosses the river, there is no indication of a Roman bridge on the map.

Both Aschheim and Altenerding are located in what would have been the province of Raetia II. While they are along Roman roads, this would have been a rural area. Both Aschheim and Altenerding were sites of Roman villas and Dornach near Aschheim was a small settlement. How much of this would have been occupied and further developed (or not) after the Roman army left is unclear. The cemetery at Altenerding is triple the size of Aschheim. Yet, there is reason to think that Aschheim was hit harder by the plague and based on the carbon dates of graves with some molecular plague signal, probably more than once. Michael McCormick (2015:83) suggests that the Aschheim cemetery gathered graves from a dispersed settlement that probably had fewer than 70 people at any one time.

A living history museum in Munich area at Kirchheim has reconstructed typical buildings from the early medieval Merovingian period. Although this area was nominally under Merovingian Frankish hegemony there is little specifically Frankish about the archaeology. They were all wooden construction. Below is a picture of a sunken pit building, an ‘out building’ and a long house.

Reconstruction of 6th-7th century Bavarian buildings at Kirchheim in the Munich district close to Aschheim. (Photo by Leporollo, Wikipedia CC3.0)

Continue to think of the Plague of Justinian in Constantinople and Pelusium, it was surely there. Just remember that most of its geographic spread may have looked more like this picture.


Feldman, M., Harbeck, M., Keller, M., Spyrou, M. A., Rott, A., Trautmann, B., et al. (2016). A high-coverage Yersinia pestis Genome from a 6th-century Justinianic Plague Victim. Molecular Biology and Evolution, 1–31. [Accepted manuscript]

McCormick, M. (2015). Tracking mass death during the fall of Rome’s empire (I). Journal of Roman Archaeology, 28, 325–357.

Wagner, D. M., Klunk, J., Harbeck, M., Devault, A., Waglechner, N., Sahl, J. W., et al. (2014). Yersinia pestis and the Plague of Justinian 541–543 AD: a genomic analysis. The Lancet Infectious Diseases, 14(4), 1–8. http://doi.org/10.1016/S1473-3099(13)70323-2

Contagions: The Society for Historic Infectious Disease Studies


Over the coming year, I would like to organize a new society specifically on the study of infectious diseases in the past.  It is called Contagions: Society for Historic Infectious Disease Studies. It is open to everyone working on contemporary or historical aspects infectious diseases that can be studied in the past. Examples of these diseases include plague, cholera, smallpox, leprosy, influenza, tuberculosis, malaria, brucellosis, rinderpest, potato blight, typhoid fever, parasites (worms, mites), etc.  As this list illustrates, I think diseases of humans, animals, and plants should all be included because they all affect human health and nutrition. The organisms themselves are a point of continuity throughout time. As ancient DNA technology expands the list of ancient infectious diseases that can be identified in time and place is likely to grow by leaps and bounds. I believe that it is helpful to have people who study them today in communication with those who study them in the past via  biology,  history, epidemiology, public health,  archaeology, ecology,  climate and more. This is a true interdisciplinary topic.

To begin, there are only two goals:

  1. Organize sessions for academic conferences. Initially, the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, but perhaps others as well.
  2. Create an email discussion list on google groups open to all members. Membership in the google group will constitute membership in the group. I can act as a gatekeeper but otherwise unmoderated. The message archive will be available to members only.

I do not see any reason for a fee. I think we can get things started for a couple years at least with volunteers.

To get things started I have arranged for the society to sponsor two sessions at the upcoming ICMS at Kalamazoo in May 2017. There will be a round table on Bruce Campbell’s new book The Great Transition: Climate, Disease and Society in the Late Medieval World. This is the first book that I know of that  examines the Black Death with the new genetic paradigm in the context of the entire 14th century throughout the Old World. The second will be a session of papers on “Historic Landscapes of Disease” which will continue the series I have been personally sponsoring for the last couple of years. I am looking for papers that focus on epidemiology, ecology of disease, environmental history and disease, history or archaeology of human health and disease, and related topics.

If you are interested in joining the society or participating in the Congress next May, please contact me with the form below. Abstracts are due by September 15.  I am really looking forward to gathering a truly interdisciplinary group of people who are all interested in historic diseases.