Squirrel fur may have helped spread leprosy

Scientists have found evidence that the medieval taste for the beautiful fine fur of red squirrels, traded with Viking Scandinavia, may have been a factor in the spread of leprosy.

The link between human and animal leprosy had already been suggested when the disease was found in modern squirrels in the UK, but the new evidence is from analysis of the skull of a woman who died more than 1,000 years ago in Suffolk, before the Norman invasion.

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She suffered from the same strain of leprosy as other medieval skeletons from along the East Anglian coast, and from skeletons of the period from Denmark and Sweden – and closely related to the type of leprosy still found in modern red squirrels.

The disease was one of the most dreaded of medieval times, with many victims shunned and forced to live apart from society. The unfortunate woman – whose remains were found by chance in a garden in Hoxne in the late 20th century and are now in the collection of the museum in Diss – had disfiguring marks to the skull including the destruction of her nose, hallmarks of leprosy. The damage was so severe it suggests the disease would have had terrible effects on her life, leaving her with extensive facial lesions and probably nerve damage to her hands and feet.

Scientists led by Sarah Inskip, of St John’s College Cambridge, who publish their findings in the Journal of Medical Microbiology, managed to extract ancient DNA from bone shavings from the skull, and also traces of the bacteria M. leprae.

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Radiocarbon dating suggests that she lived between 885-1015AD, and analysis of the bacteria showed she had the same strain of leprosy as a man from Great Chesterford who lived centuries earlier. Inskip said the skeletal analysis, together with the prevalence of leper hospitals in East Anglia from the 11th century on, suggested the disease was endemic in the region for centuries, earlier than in other parts of the country. Inskip said the same chalky soil giving good bone preservation is found in other areas including Hampshire and Dorset, but no cases of leprosy have been found in early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries there.

The authors suggest that North Sea trade links with Scandinavia may explain the prevalence of the disease in East Anglia.

Inskip, who said it was notable that squirrels were sometimes kept as pets, said: “It is possible that this strain of leprosy was proliferated in the South East of England by contact with highly prized squirrel pelt and meat, which was traded by the Vikings at the time this woman was alive. Strong trade connections with Denmark and Sweden were in full flow in the medieval period, with King’s Lynn and Yarmouth becoming significant ports for fur imports.”

The last case of human leprosy in the British Isles was more than 200 years ago, but a recent study has demonstrated leprosy infection in red squirrels, now an endangered species, in once of their last UK strongholds, on Brownsea Island in Dorset. Red squirrels in Scotland have also been found to carry a different strain of leprosy. It affects the animals as it does humans, leaving them with lesions on their muzzles, ears and paws.

The strain in the squirrels is the same as one found in the nine-banded armadillo, which has been linked to some cases of human leprosy in Florida.

 

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Shackled skeletons in mass grave possibly Cylon’s rebel army

Eighty skeletons found shackled in a mass grave near Athens last year could be the remains of Cylon’s followers. The Athenian nobleman was the first recorded winner of the Olympic Games, but he went down in history for attempting to take over the city by force and become its only leader, some 2,600 years ago.

The skeletal remains were discovered in the Falyron Delta Necropolis – a large cemetery dating back to the 8th to 5th century BCE that was unearthed over a century ago during the construction of an opera house and a library south of Athens.

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The wrists of the 80 individuals had been clamped by iron shackles. They were put in the mass grave but arranged in an orderly manner, which suggests they were not slaves.

They appear to have been the victims of a bloody execution. Archaeologists determined that they had died from blows to the head sometime between 675 and 650 BCE, as dated by the analyses of pottery fragments recovered from the grave. This was a time of great social unrest in Ancient Greece.

Discovering so many ancient skeletons in one place is rare, so the researchers were intrigued and wanted to find out who these individuals had been and why they were killed. Ever since the skeletons were unearthed, the most popular hypothesis discussed by archaeologists has been that these individuals were part of Cylon’s army that tried to take over the city.

What is certain is that the coup attempt failed. Cylon was defeated but managed to escape and hide in a temple. The men who fought for him were not so lucky, and just like the individuals in the mass grave, they were executed.

Archaeologists have started using innovative scientific techniques worthy of a CSI episode to learn more about what happened and to see if they can get clues to confirm this theory.

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The tests conducted on the skeletons include DNA profiling as well as radiographic and isotopic analyses to shed light on these people’s age, geographic origin and social status. The archaeologists might also get an idea of whether these men were related and whether they were in good health overall.

All this information could help confirm whether these men were likely to have been Cylon’s supporters. Preliminary results back up the idea that these were Cylon’s men, as they appear to have been young and healthy when they died, as would be expected of fighters in an army. However, more investigations will be needed before the full picture can emerge – the DNA analyses in particular are awaited with impatience to establish the relationships between these people who were executed together in such a violent manner.

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Hidden Landscapes: Stonehenge

Stonehenge is one the UK’s most visited tourist attractions – and one of the world’s most enigmatic ancient monuments. People come from all over the world to stare at the iconic stone pillars and wonder how, and why, they were put in place.

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The site may be instantly recognisable, but there is far more to it than first meets the eye. As archaeologists study this area, mystery after mystery unfolds. But a coherent story may be beginning to emerge.

That has been particularly true over the last decade. Researchers have been studying not just the monument itself, but the area around it, hoping to find clues in this intriguing landscape of prehistoric monuments.

Underground imaging and excavation have revealed that Stonehenge was once part of a complicated network of structures: ancient burial mounds, unknown settlements, processional routes and even gold-adorned burials. The finds paint a picture of a far more mysterious and elaborate Neolithic and Bronze Age world than previously thought.

One such project that looked at Stonehenge in this holistic way was the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project, which ran from 2010 to 2014. Underground radar and magnetic imaging techniques revealed that Stonehenge lies at the centre of a complex web of structures covering an estimated 4.5 square miles (12 sq km). The project caused a media frenzy in 2015, when scientists announced the finding of a potential ‘Superhenge’ at nearby Durrington Walls – a huge 500m (1,640ft) diameter stone circle.

However, this frenzy was short-lived. When excavating the site, the archaeologists didn’t find any stones. Instead, they found that timber posts once stood here. After they were removed, the holes were filled with chalk and then covered in earth to form a henge bank. On radar scans, the gaps in the loose chalk had looked like stones.

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Today, Durrington Walls is a field surrounded by banks.

Despite this setback, UK lead for the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project Vincent Gaffney stressed that the project revealed hundreds of new features and many sites never seen before. “Following this survey, we know not only where things are but where they aren’t as well,” said Gaffney, an archaeologist at the University of Bradford.

These kinds of surveys are key, Gaffney said, because they allow archaeologists “to investigate all areas of land equally, and not just the monuments we know. This allows us to interpret the evidence in a more sophisticated manner.

“What this has revealed is a completely unknown monumental phase of Durrington Walls. In between the Neolithic village and the massive earthwork was a massive ring of posts somewhere between 4-6m (13-20ft) in height – a minimum of 200 and perhaps as many as 300. This is completely new and would have been missed entirely without the survey.”

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Modern stones mark where the pillars of Woodhenge, another ancient monument in the area, would have been

The finding of another huge monument in the area has changed the way archaeologists look at the development and history of the region. “Increasingly, I would suggest that we are beginning to see the mosaic of blank areas and monuments as suggesting processional movement,” said Gaffney.

In other words, the landscape was used in religious or ceremonial processions related to the monuments.

Mike Parker Pearson of University College London’s Institute of Archaeology, who led the Stonehenge Riverside Project from 2003 to 2009, thinks that the posts at Durrington Walls were put up with the intention that they would be taken down soon after. “They may only have stood for a matter of months before they were replaced by the henge bank and ditch,” he said. “Their purpose seems to have been to mark the perimeter of the great village, by now abandoned. So perhaps the posts were a monument to the people who lived here while building Stonehenge.”

Whatever the monument was used for, it shows that Stonehenge isn’t alone in this landscape. Understanding the significance of Stonehenge depends on understanding everything else around it as well.

The Stonehenge Riverside Project found that Stonehenge was built in two phases. The first – a ditch, bank and circle of bluestones – was built 500 years earlier than previously thought, more than 4,500 years ago. The second phase, when the larger, iconic outer circle was erected, came about 500 years after the first.

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The area, however, was occupied beginning around 9,000 years ago, suggesting it had significance long before Stonehenge was built.

Twenty miles (30km) away lies the less well-known but just as significant site of Avebury, home of the largest stone circle in Europe. But the Neolithic reach of this area extended even further – such as into Wales, where prehistoric Britons procured the bluestones for Stonehenge’s inner circle.

Meanwhile, Parker Pearson says, it seems that the big stones at Stonehenge came from the Avebury area.

This suggests that these significant Neolithic landscapes – Salisbury Plain, Avebury and the Preseli hills in Wales, another area rich with prehistoric monuments – were linked. And holding that link together was Stonehenge.

Parker Pearson suggests that the Welsh bluestones were the first to be put in place at Stonehenge, and that it was the monument that they came from that was important. The stones would have been considered to be ancestral symbols of western Britons, he said, and “bringing them to Salisbury Plain was an act of unification of the two main Neolithic peoples of southern Britain.”

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Outcrops of rock in the Presili hills, Wales

Even today, the Preseli hills are dotted with dolmens (ancient tombs). “The density of dolmens reveals that this was an important region (both politically and spiritually) some 700 years before Stonehenge,” Parker Pearson said, making it “possibly a leading territory within western Britain in the centuries before 3000 BC.”

But even if we agree with the theory that bringing the stones from Wales was a symbolic and even political, act, it presents another mystery: how did prehistoric Britons move those huge stones?

Some suggest that people didn’t move the stones at all, and that instead, glaciers transported the stones across southern Britain. But the finding of two ancient stone quarries in Preseli ended that debate for the most part.

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Excavations at the Craig Rhos-y-felin quarry, shown here, revealed that the bluestones were quarried and transported to Stonehenge

Scientists also have experimented with ideas of how to transport the large stones 160 miles (260km) from Wales. According to Parker Pearson, they discovered that moving small megaliths like the bluestones, which mostly weighed 2 tons or less, was not actually that difficult – even with just dragging the stone on a sledge.

In another recent finding, archaeologists discovered the cremated remains of people buried at Stonehenge. The Stonehenge Riverside Project’s 2008 excavation retrieved about 58 burials, including at least nine men – and 14 women. As it is thought that anyone buried at Stonehenge had elevated social status, this therefore poses questions about the role of women in the Neolithic period.

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“It frequently seems that there is always something new from Stonehenge, but I continue to be surprised that we keep finding so much – even in areas that have been studied intensively for years,” said Gaffney. “The latest findings from Durrington demonstrate that new technology doesn’t just find new sites, it dramatically transforms how we understand known sites.

“It also emphasises not just how unique Stonehenge was, but how important the landscape around that monument was – and that we are still just beginning to understand how it developed and what it meant to the people who built Stonehenge.”

Even so, no matter how many new discoveries are made, it seems that Stonehenge will only continue to throw up new questions for scientists and the media to ponder. These Neolithic people had huge skill and ambition.

Such a huge monument erected so perfectly, over many centuries, is not something easy for us to understand in our fast-paced, modern world.

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New Archaeological discovery on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne

Archaeologists have discovered one of Britain’s oldest churches.

The find – on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, off the Northumberland coast – is of great historical importance because the newly discovered ancient church may originally have been built in or shortly after the mid 7th century AD as part of the monastic spiritual epicentre from which much of northern and central England was eventually Christianised.

The archaeological excavation has revealed that the monks chose the most challenging and difficult location to build their church – potentially for politically symbolic reasons.

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The building stood on a totally exposed, extremely wind-blown rocky promontory facing directly towards the great royal palace of the monks’ first patron and benefactor, north-east England’s most important early Christian king, the 7th century St Oswald of Northumbria. The church was constructed just two or three metres from the cliff edge. The location was known in Anglo-Saxon times simply as “The Precipice”.

Also suggesting an early, potentially late 7th century, date is the very primitive ‘pre-architectural’ style of the church’s masonry.

So far, the archaeologists have found dozens of pieces of broken masonry – including crudely-worked window surrounds – in a style suggesting that the mason was more accustomed to working in wood than in stone.

A final potential clue to its age has been found at the extreme eastern end of the church. It is the probable base of what may well have been the original altar installed there by St Aidan in or immediately after he founded the monastery in AD 635.

It’s also important because it is likely to have been a key site at the spiritual heart of the early 8th-century monastic community that made Britain’s most famous early medieval illuminated manuscript – the Lindisfarne Gospels.

The evidence suggesting that this could be the site of one of Holy Island’s original early Anglo-Saxon period churches – perhaps even one built by the founder of Lindisfarne, St Aidan – is complex but persuasive.

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The archaeological excavation has revealed that the monks chose the most challenging and difficult location to build their church – potentially for politically symbolic reasons.

The building stood on a totally exposed, extremely wind-blown rocky promontory facing directly towards the great royal palace of the monks’ first patron and benefactor, north-east England’s most important early Christian king, the 7th century St Oswald of Northumbria. The church was constructed just two or three metres from the cliff edge. The location was known in Anglo-Saxon times simply as “The Precipice”.

Also suggesting an early, potentially late 7th century, date is the very primitive ‘pre-architectural’ style of the church’s masonry.

So far, the archaeologists have found dozens of pieces of broken masonry – including crudely-worked window surrounds – in a style suggesting that the mason was more accustomed to working in wood than in stone.

A final potential clue to its age has been found at the extreme eastern end of the church. It is the probable base of what may well have been the original altar installed there by St Aidan in or immediately after he founded the monastery in AD 635.

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It can be potentially associated with Aidan because it’s believed that changes in English church layout tradition after the mid 7thcentury meant that altars were no longer to be located up against the east wall of the church, but several metres further west.

Interestingly, the building was constructed of gleaming white sandstone that would have reflected sunlight particularly well, giving the impression that it was quite literally radiating the purest white light. The gleaming structure perched on its 20-metre high clifftop would have been clearly visible from the royal palace at Bamburgh as a white building surrounded by sea.

“It is one of the most important discoveries from the early medieval period that has been made in Britain over recent decades,” said Peter Ryder, an archaeologist specialising in medieval ecclesiastical buildings who has been involved in recording the masonry from the newly discovered early church.

The archaeologists have also discovered the massive foundations of what appears to have been a large signalling tower on the same promontory – presumably to enable simple messages to be sent directly to the king’s palace at Bamburgh, some four miles across the sea to the south.

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The eight metre square tower (with walls 2.5 metres thick) would probably have been up to 12 metres high – and would also have been used to communicate with monks living on the Farne Islands, seven miles away. It’s known from ancient accounts that a tower on that promontory was used, for instance, to receive a beacon signal from those monks when St Cuthbert (subsequently regarded as the patron saint of northern England) died there in AD 687.

The buried remains of the newly discovered early church, currently being excavated by the archaeologists, show that the building was at least partially made of stone.

However, it is almost certain that the initial mid-7th century church or (churches) on Lindisfarne were originally constructed purely of timber. We also know that the Lindisfarne monks viewed their earliest timber churches with such reverence that, in the 7th or early 8th century, they encased one in pure lead to preserve it – and later (in the 9th century) deconstructed it or another timber church and took it to the mainland to prevent it being destroyed by the Vikings.

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It is, therefore, conceivable that the newly discovered stone church on the Lindisfarne clifftop was built in the mid or late 7thcentury as a protective structure around what may have been St Aidan’s original timber church. If that is not correct, then it could be a later Anglo-Saxon stone rebuild of that church, although, on balance of probabilities, the primitive nature of the masonry would perhaps argue against that. Alternatively, it could be that a totally new stone church was built on the promontory in perhaps the early or mid-8th century.

Ultimately, only further excavation and scientific testing may solve the conundrum.

The newly discovered foundations and masonry fragments of the church on the wind-blown Lindisfarne clifftop are by far the oldest Anglo-Saxon structural remains found on the island.

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Ancient Roman town of Ucetia discovered in France

Vue aérienne de la zone 1 en cours de fouille, avec de gauche à droite le bâtiment à mosaïque antique, la rue et les habitations, mis au jour à Uzès (Gard), 2017.

For the first time in over a thousand years, archeologists have laid eyes on the ancient Roman town of Ucetia, which is decked out with some surprisingly well-preserved mosaics.

The discovery by the French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) was made near modern-day Uzès in the south of France during the construction of a school. The 4,000-square-meter (43,056-square-foot) site contains artifacts ranging from the Roman Republic era (1st century BCE) to the late antiquity (7th century), right through to the Middle Ages.

Nettoyage du pavement de la salle mosaïquée antique découverte à Uzès (Gard), 2017.

The town’s existence was first hinted at when researchers found an inscription saying Ucetia on a stone slab in nearby Nîmes. A few isolated fragments and mosaic pieces suggested the site of the mysterious Roman town, but it remained hidden until INRAP started to dig beneath the surface.

“Prior to our work, we knew that there had been a Roman city called Ucetia only because its name was mentioned on stela [inscripted stone slab] in Nimes, alongside 11 other names of Roman towns in the area,” Philippe Cayn of INRAP told IBTimes.

One of the main findings was a 250-square-meter (2,690-square-foot) area that the researchers believe was a public building, based on the fact it was once lined with grand columns. This building also features two large multi-colored mosaics with patterns, symbols, and animals, including an owl, duck, eagle, and fawn. Preliminary research says this building stood strong until the end of the 1st century CE.

Angle du décor du pavement mosaïqué antique, formé de motifs géométriques (postes, chevrons, damiers) découvert à Uzès (Gard), 2017.

Cayn added: “This kind of elaborate mosaic pavement is often found in the Roman world in the 1st and 2nd centuries, but this one dates back to about 200 years before that, so this is surprising.”

Another important discovery was a 500-square-meter (5,381-square-foot) urban dwelling, which contains mosaic decorations of geometrical patterns and dolphins. This building also contains several large dolia, large wine vessels, that suggests wine was produced here.

The archeologists believe there is still a lot of work to do and hope to continue their research on the site over the coming years. The site will be part of a peer-reviewed study once all the necessary groundwork is done and dusted.

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Black death burial site in Italy yields a rare coffin birth

Researchers investigating a 14th century burial ground have identified a rare case of “coffin birth” – a gruesome phenomenon in which a deceased pregnant woman’s fetus is expelled within the grave.

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The remains of a mother and fetus were buried alongside those of two other children in the early days of the Black Death in Italy, however researchers cannot say for certain that they died of the plague [Credit: Fabrizio Benente (Universita di Genova – DAFIST)]

The event, which has seldom been reported in archaeology, is known as postmortem fetal extrusion. It results from a build-up of gas pressure within the decomposing body.

“In this case, we have a partial expulsion of a 38- to 40-week-old fetus, which was found to be complete and to lie within the birth canal,” Deneb Cesana, at the University of Genova, told Seeker.

The remains of the woman and her unborn baby were originally uncovered in 2006, interred with two other young individuals that scientists say were aged 12 and three years old. Only recently has the discovery been fully investigated.

The research was led by Cesana and her colleagues Ole Jørgen Benedictow, a plague historian at the University of Oslo, and Raffaella Bianucci, a bioanthropologist at the University of Warwick in England. Their work appears in the journal Anthropological Science.

The gravesite was found in the cemetery of the “ospitale” (hostel) of San Nicolao di Pietra Colice, located some 45 miles from Genova.

The hostel, which also housed a church, was situated in the Northern Apennines at about 2,600 feet above sea level, and was used as a resting place by travelers and pilgrims heading to Rome and trekking along the two major transit routes of the Liguria region.

“The woman was found laying slightly on her side, while on her left there were two young individuals of unknown sex,” said archaeologist Fabrizio Benente, of the University of Genova.

Benente, who was not involved in the anthropological study, directed the excavation campaign with a team of the International Institute of Ligurian Studies and the University of Genova.

“This was the only multiple burial found at the cemetery,” he said. “The others were all single graves.”

(a) Skeleton of the adult female (b) Skeleton of the 12-year-old sub-adult (c) Skeleton 
of the 3-year-old sub-adult (d) Skeleton of the 38–40-week-old fetus [Credit: Cesana, D., Benedictow, O.J., & R. Bianucci]

He added that the corpses had been buried simultaneously and directly into the soil, and dated the burial to the second half of the 14th century.

The timing corresponded to the arrival of the Black Death in Genoa in 1348. The researchers hypothesized that the woman and the two children likely died of the bubonic plague.

Bianucci’s analysis confirmed that three of the four individuals – the woman, the fetus, and the 12-year-old child – tested positive for the F1 antigen of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes the plague.

“This is the first evidence of Y. pestis infection in 14th-century Liguria,” Bianucci said.

“Our finding supports the notion that the contagion, which had originally started from Genoa’s port area, progressively spread and disseminated through the main communication routes,” she added.

Anthropological investigations carried out and funded by the Archaeological Museum of Sestri Levante and the Archaeological Superintendency of Liguria showed that the woman, who was about 5 feet 11 inches tall, was between 30 and 39 years old when she died.

It emerged that she had several ailments during her life. Her teeth revealed localized periodontitis and linear enamel hypoplasia – a band-like dental defect that denotes childhood physiological stress – while her bones showed evidence of other diseases.

The woman also suffered from congenital hip dysplasia and was likely affected by Legg–Calvé–Perthes disease, a childhood condition that affects the hip, resulting in a permanent deformity of the head of the thigh bone (femur). She likely walked with a limp.

The skeleton of the 12-year-old showed signs of lesions that were possibly linked to metabolic diseases or nutritional deficiencies. The 3-year-old child had no evidence of disease.

The researchers have not yet conducted DNA analysis that will determine the sex of the children and whether they have a relationship with the pregnant woman.

According to Benente, it is possible that they were her children. He believes that they ended up in the mountains, far from the villages, because the hostel of San Nicolao might have worked as a lazaretto, a hospital for people afflicted with contagious diseases.

“She was in advanced pregnancy and limping,” Benente said. “This wasn’t the best condition to go on a pilgrimage to Rome, possibly with two kids.”

According to the authors of the study, every conclusion is premature before DNA tests and further research are carried out.

“At the moment we can really only say that the skeleton of this unfortunate and frail woman is providing us with a new case of coffin birth,” Bianucci said, “which adds to the limited number reported so far.” 

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