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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For a large part of human prehistory, people around the world practised trepanation: a crude surgical procedure that involves forming a hole in the skull of a living person by either drilling, cutting or scraping away layers of bone with a sharp implement.
To date, thousands of skulls bearing signs of trepanation have been unearthed at archaeological sites across the world.
But despite its apparent importance, scientists are still not completely agreed on why our ancestors performed trepanation.
Anthropological accounts of 20th-Century trepanations in Africa and Polynesia suggest that, in these cases at least, trepanation was performed to treat pain – for instance, the pain caused by skull trauma or neurological disease.
Trepanation may also have had a similar purpose in prehistory. Many trepanned skulls show signs of cranial injuries or neurological diseases, often in the same region of the skull where the trepanation hole was made.
But as well as being used to treat medical conditions, researchers have long suspected that ancient humans performed trepanation for a quite different reason: ritual.
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The earliest clear evidence of trepanation dates to approximately 7,000 years ago. It was practised in places as diverse as Ancient Greece, North and South America, Africa, Polynesia and the Far East. People probably developed the practice independently in several locations.
Trepanation had been abandoned by most cultures by the end of the Middle Ages, but the practice was still being carried out in a few isolated parts of Africa and Polynesia until the early 1900s.
Since the very first scientific studies on trepanation were published in the 19th Century, scholars have continued to argue that ancient humans sometimes performed trepanation to allow the passage of spirits into or out of the body, or as part of an initiation rite.
However, convincing evidence is hard to come by. It is almost impossible to completely rule out the possibility that a trepanation was carried out for medical reasons, because some brain conditions leave no trace on the skull.
However, in a small corner of Russia archaeologists have turned up some of the best evidence for ritual trepanation ever discovered.
The story begins in 1997. Archaeologists were excavating a prehistoric burial site close to the city of Rostov-on-Don in the far south of Russia, near the northern reaches of the Black Sea.
The site contained the skeletal remains of 35 humans, distributed among 20 separate graves. Based on the style of the burials, the archaeologists knew that they dated to between approximately 5,000 and 3,000 BC, a period known as the Chalcolithic or “Copper Age”.
One of the graves contained the skeletons of five adults – two women and three men – together with an infant aged between one and two years, and a girl in her mid-teens.
Finding multiple skeletons in the same prehistoric grave is not particularly unusual. But what had been done to their skulls was: the two women, two of the men and the teenage girl had all been trepanned.
Each of their skulls contained a single hole, several centimetres wide and roughly ellipsoidal in shape, with signs of scraping around the edges. The skull of the third man contained a depression which also showed evidence of having been carved, but not an actual hole. Only the infant’s skull was unblemished.
The job of analysing the contents of the grave fell to Elena Batieva, an anthropologist now at the Southern Federal University in Rostov-on-Don, Russia. She immediately recognised the holes as trepanations, and she soon realised that these trepanations were unusual.
They had all been made in almost exactly the same location: a point on the skull called the “obelion”. The obelion is on the top of the skull and towards the rear, roughly where a high ponytail might be gathered.
Less than 1% of all recorded trepanations are located above the obelion point. What’s more, Batieva knew that such trepanations were even less common in ancient Russia. As far as she was aware at the time, there was just one other recorded case of an obelion trepanation: a skull unearthed in 1974 at an archaeological site remarkably close to the one she was excavating.
Clearly, finding even one obelion trepanation is remarkable. But Batieva was looking at five, all of them buried in the same grave. This was, and is, unprecedented.
There is a good reason why obelion trepanation is uncommon: it is very dangerous.
The obelion point is located directly above the superior sagittal sinus, where blood from the brain collects before flowing into the brain’s main outgoing veins. Opening the skull in this location would have risked major haemorrhage and death.
This suggests the Copper Age inhabitants of Russia must have had good reason to perform such trepanation procedures. Yet none of the skulls showed any signs of having suffered any injury or illness, before or after the trepanation had been performed.
In other words, it appeared as if all of these people were trepanned while they were completely healthy. Was their trepanation evidence of some sort of ritual?
It was an intriguing possibility. However, Batieva had to give up the trail. She had many more skeletons to analyse from all over southern Russia, and could not afford to get sidetracked by just a few skulls, however enigmatic.
Before she gave up, Batieva decided to search through Russia’s unpublished archaeological records, in case any more strange obelion trepanations had been discovered but not reported.
Surprisingly, she got two hits. The skulls of two young women with obelion trepanations had been discovered years earlier: one in 1980 and another in 1992. Each one had been unearthed less than 31 miles (50km) from Rostov-on-Don, and neither showed any signs of having been trepanned for a medical reason.
This gave Batieva a grand total of eight unusual skulls, all clustered in a small region of southern Russia and potentially all of about the same age. A decade later, even more came to light.
In 2011, an international team of archaeologists was analysing 137 human skeletons. They had recently been excavated from three separate Copper Age burial sites in a mountainous part of southern Russia called Kabardino-Balkaria, around 310 miles (500km) south-east of Rostov-on-Don, close to the modern-day border with Georgia.
The archaeologists had not set out to discover trepanations. They were there to learn about the general health of the prehistoric inhabitants of the region. But among the 137 skulls, they found nine with conspicuous holes.
Five of them were standard examples of trepanation. The holes had been made in a variety of different locations around the front and side of the skull, and all of the skulls showed signs of having suffered a physical trauma, suggesting that the trepanations had been performed to treat the effects of the injuries.
But none of the other four trepanned skulls showed any signs of damage or disease. What’s more, all four had been trepanned exactly above the obelion point.
Quite by chance one of the researchers – Julia Gresky, a German anthropologist – had already read Batieva’s paper describing the unusual trepanations from the Rostov-on-Don region.
The 12 skulls would have been remarkable discoveries wherever they had been found. But the fact that they were all discovered in the same tiny corner of Russia meant that a connection seemed likely. If there was no link, the odds that a batch of such rare trepanations would turn up exclusively in southern Russia would have been exceedingly low.
Gresky, Bateiva and their colleagues argue that, while this idea is difficult to prove, the clustering of these unusual trepanations suggests that southern Russia may have been a centre for ritual trepanation.
Maria Mednikova of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow is an expert on Russian trepanation. She believes that trepanations in specific, dangerous areas of the cranium may have been performed to achieve “transformations” of some kind. She suggests that, by trepanning in these places, people thought they could acquire unique skills that ordinary members of society did not have.
We can only speculate as to why these 12 apparently healthy people were trepanned in such an unusual and dangerous way. But thanks to the trepanation holes themselves, we can infer a surprising amount about the fate of the people after they received their trepanation.
One of the 12 skulls belonged to a woman under the age of 25, who had been buried at one of the sites near Rostov-on-Don. It showed no signs of healing, suggesting that she died during her trepanation or shortly afterwards.
However, the owners of the other skulls seem to have survived their operations. Their skulls showed bone healing around the edges of the trepanation holes – although the bone never completely re-grew over the holes.
Three of the 12 skulls showed only slight signs of healing around the trepanation hole, suggesting that their owners only survived between two and eight weeks after the operation. Two of these individuals were women between 20 and 35 years of age. The third was an elderly person between 50 and 70 years old, whose sex could not be determined.
The other eight skulls showed more advanced healing. Based on what we know about bone healing today, these individuals probably survived for at least four years after their operations.
These eight survivors included all five of the people from the mass grave near Rostov-on-Don, whose bizarrely-trepanned skulls first attracted Batieva’s attention almost 20 years ago.
The two men, two women and one adolescent girl had all survived with their obelion holes for years. The girl, who based on her skeleton was between 14 and 16 years old, must have been trepanned when she was no older than 12, and possibly much younger.
It is still possible that these 12 people were suffering from diseases or head injuries. In that case, the trepanning operation may have worked for at least eight of them.
But it is also possible that Batieva and her colleagues are right, and these people were trepanned for a ritual purpose. If that is true, we can only guess at what benefits they received – or believed they had received – throughout the rest of their lives.
Skeletons unearthed during excavations for London’s Crossrail project are those of Black Death victims who were buried during the 14th and 15th Century pandemics, DNA analysis has revealed.
The skeletons of 13 men, three women and two children, along with seven other unidentifiable remains, were found under Charterhouse Square in Farringdon during excavation work for the £14.8 billion project.
It is thought that the area near the Barbican Centre, which was just outside the city boundary at the time, may be the location the location of the second emergency burial ground referenced in historical documents but until now it had never found.
Set up in the capital to cater for the masses of bodies, it means that thousands more could have been buried in a mass grave in the area. A ‘community excavation project’ is set to take place in July to try to determine the extent of the cemetery.
Carbon dating techniques on 10 of the skeletons conducted by scientists from Queen’s University Belfast indicated three separate “phases” of burials – coinciding with known separate outbreaks of the plague in the capital.
The Black Death spread from Europe to England in 1348 and the layer of bodies found at the bottom of the excavation site are estimated to have been buried between 1348 and 1349, while a second layer were dated to coincide with a second outbreak of the plague in 1361, the researchers said.
The final layer of bodies were laid to rest between 1433 and 1435 – when another devastating event of plague swept through London. Four of the skeletons had remnants of the Yersinia pestis bacterium – which causes plague – on their teeth, DNA analysis showed.
The findings will be featured in a new Channel 4 programme, Return Of The Black Death, during which scientists from Public Health England in Porton Down will argue that the DNA evidence shows that the plague must have been spread by coughs and sneezes rather than fleas on rats – as has been popular belief for many years.
The team led by Dr Tim Brooks argue that the infection spread so fast that it must have got into the lungs of already malnourished victims, meaning the outbreaks were in fact pneumonic plague rather than a bubonic plague.
Many of the bodies showed signs of poor health and of having jobs that involved heavy manual labour, the Queen’s University researchers said, noting a high rate of back damage and strain.
Four out of the 10 remains analysed are from people that grew up outside the capital, as far north as Scotland, showing that, just as today, London drew people from across the country.
Osteologist Don Walker, from the Museum of London Archaeology (Mola), said he was “amazed” how much information could be gleaned about each person.
“The skeletons discovered at Crossrail’s Farringdon site provide a rare opportunity for us to study the medieval population of London that experienced the Black Death,” he said.
“We can start to answer questions like: where did they come from and what were their lives like? What’s more, it allows for detailed analysis of the pathogen, helping to characterise the history and evolution of this devastating pandemic.”
Jay Carver, Crossrail’s lead archaeologist, added: “This is probably the first time in modern archaeological investigation that we have finally found evidence for a burial ground in this area which potentially contains thousands of victims from the Black Death and potentially later plague events as well.
“Historical documents suggest the burial ground was established for poor strangers. There is no doubt from the osteological work that the individuals buried here were not the wealthy classes, and they are representing the typical Londoner.”
Around 1.5 million Britons – more than a third of the population – died as a result of the Black Death, while about 25 million perished across Europe. More than 10,000 items of archaeological interest have been uncovered since the Crossrail project began.
A centuries-old burial pit packed with the bodies of probable plague victims has been discovered by chance near the Uffizi Galleries in Florence.
Workers who were digging the foundations for a new lift for an annex to the world-famous art galleries stumbled on the ancient cemetery, which contains at least 60 skeletons and dates to the fourth or fifth century AD.
The haphazard way in which the skeletons were found has led archaeologists to believe that they were probably buried in haste, possibly during a plague epidemic.
“They were all buried during the same period, so it was probably an epidemic that killed them,” said Andrea Pessina, the head of archaeology for the regional government of Tuscany.
Experts will conduct DNA and carbon-14 tests on the well-preserved skeletons to determine the cause and time of death, he said.
The skeletons showed no signs of physical injury or malnutrition.
“The remains bear no evidence of trauma,” said Mr Pessina, further supporting the theory that the people were killed by an epidemic.
The burial pit was found purely by chance. “We had to do some work to build the foundations of the new lifts for the museum and we came across this discovery,” said Alessandra Marino, an official in charge of the project.
Archaeologists believe there may well be more skeletons to discover, as they continue their excavations.
Epidemics such as the bubonic plague killed millions of people when they periodically swept across Europe, Asia and other parts of the world.
The best known epidemic, the Black Death of the 14th century, is estimated to have killed around 50 million people, or 60 per cent of Europe’s population.
Italy was badly hit by the disease, with one chronicler in Siena recalling bodies being buried in circumstances similar to those of the newly-discovered burial pit in Florence.
“In many places in Siena great pits were dug and piled deep with the multitude of dead. And there were also those who were so sparsely covered with earth that the dogs dragged them forth and devoured many bodies throughout the city,” wrote the chronicler, Agnolo di Tura, whose five children were killed by the epidemic.
In a “eureka” moment worthy of Dr. Frankenstein, scientists have discovered that two 3,000-year-old Scottish “bog bodies” are actually made from the remains of six people.
According to new isotopic dating and DNA experiments, the mummies—a male and a female—were assembled from various body parts, although the purpose of the gruesome composites is likely lost to history. The mummies were discovered more than a decade ago below the remnants of 11th-century houses at Cladh Hallan, a prehistoric village on the island of South Uist (map), off the coast of Scotland. The bodies had been buried in the fetal position 300 to 600 years after death. Based on the condition and structures of the skeletons, scientists had previously determined that the bodies had been placed in a peat bog just long enough to preserve them and then removed. The skeletons were then reburied hundreds of years later.
Terry Brown, a professor of biomedical archaeology at the University of Manchester, said there were clues that these bog bodies were more than they seemed. On the female skeleton, “the jaw didn’t fit into the rest of the skull,” he said. “So Mike [Parker Pearson, of Sheffield University] came and said, Could we try to work it out through DNA testing?”
Brown sampled DNA from the female skeleton’s jawbone, skull, arm, and leg. The results show that bones came from different people, none of whom even shared the same mother, he said. The female is made from body parts that date to around the same time period. But isotopic dating showed that the male mummy is made from people who died a few hundred years apart.
Quick Dip in the Bog
Another clue to the odd nature of the Cladh Hallan mummies is their unusually well-preserved bones. A peat bog is a high-acid, low-oxygen environment, which inhibits the bacteria that break down organics, said Gill Plunkett, a lecturer in paleoecology at Queen’s University Belfast who was not involved in the current study.
“The combined conditions are particularly good for the preservation of most organic materials,” she said.
“But on the other hand, the acidic conditions will attack calcium-based materials,” so most known bog bodies have better preserved skin and soft tissue than bones.
In the Cladh Hallan bodies, the bones are still articulated—attached to each other as they would be in life. This suggests that the buriers removed the bodies from the peat bog after preservation but before acid destroyed the bones. When the mummies were later reburied in soil, the soft tissue again began to break down. The researchers aren’t sure why the villagers went through this unusual process, or why they built composite mummies in the first place. A cynical theory, study author Brown said, assumes that the Bronze Age people of Cladh Hallan were just eminently practical: “Maybe the head dropped off and they got another head to stick on.”
Another possibility is that the merging was deliberate, to create a symbolic ancestor that literally embodied traits from multiple lineages. Brown cites the example of the Chinchorro mummies discovered in the Chilean Andes, where embalmers reinforced or reconstructed bodies with sticks, grass, animal hair, or even sea lion skin.
“It seems the person is not so important, but the image is. So it’s not a single identity, but it’s representing something.”
More Combo Mummies Out There?
According to Brown, there may be other composite bodies waiting to be discovered. Often when scientists study the DNA of very ancient remains, they sample only one part of a body to prevent needless damage to the skeleton. Additional composite bodies, if they exist, are likely to come from such long-ago time periods.
“I think you’d have to go back to a time when the rituals were more bizarre,” Brown said. “You’d have to go back to the mists of unrecorded time.”