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.


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.


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.




German archeologists uncover Celtic treasure

From Spiegel:

German archeologists have unearthed a 2,600-year-old Celtic tomb containing a treasure of jewellery made of gold, amber and bronze.

The subterranean chamber measuring four by five meters was uncovered near the prehistoric Heuneburg hill fort near the town of Herbertingen in south-western Germany. Its contents including the oak floor of the room are unusually well preserved. The find is a “milestone for the reconstruction of the social history of the Celts,” archeologist Dirk Krausse, the director of the dig, said on Tuesday.

The intact oak should allow archeologists to ascertain the precise age of the tomb through tree-ring dating. This is rarely possible with Celtic finds because the Celts left behind no writings and their buildings, usually made from wood and clay, have long since crumbled away.

Krausse said the artefacts found suggest that a woman from the Heuneburg aristocracy was buried there, but added that laboratory tests will need to be conducted to be certain. Only a small part of the chamber has so far been examined.

The entire room weighing some 80 tons was lifted by two cranes onto a flatbed truck and taken to a research facility in Ludwigsburg on Tuesday. The results of the analysis will be presented in June 2011, researchers said.

Heuneburg is regarded as one of the most important Celtic settlements and was a vital trading center during the period between 620 and 480 BC. Intensive excavation has taken place at the site since 1950. Other tombs found at Heuneburg over the decades had already been plundered.

The tomb and the objects are to go on show in an exhibition in Stuttgart in 2012.

From Spiegel.

Ancient Arabian treasure trove unearthed in Germany

From The National.

Archaeologists in northern Germany have unearthed a treasure of Arabian silver dirhams dating back to the first half of the seventh century in a spectacular find that proves brisk trade between the Middle East and northern Europe already existed more than 1,200 years ago.

Some of the silver dirhams found by archaeologists in Germany bear the King of Persia’s portrait (Stefan Sauer/EPA)

A total of 82 coins were found in a field near the town of Anklam, a few kilometres from the Baltic Sea coast, in excavations completed on September 2. They come from regions that are now Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and northern Africa. The oldest coins, about an inch in diameter, were minted around 610 AD and bear the portrait of Khosrau II, the 22nd Sassanid King of Persia who ruled from 590 to 628 AD.

Other coins in the trove were minted around 820 AD and have inscriptions in Arabic. “They are little works of art with delicately engraved writing on them,” Fred Ruchhöft, an archaeologist and historian at the nearby University of Greifswald who has analysed the find, said in an interview. “It’s good silver. It just needs a clean and then it’s like new.”

Archaeologists using metal detectors discovered the coins together with a silver bracelet and three small bars of silver scattered over an area 20 by 30 metres while examining the site of a former Slavic settlement from around 800 AD. They believe the treasure had been buried underground in a ceramic pot by a wealthy trader or craftsman. They also found remnants of the pot.

Centuries of ploughing had disturbed the soil, broken the pot and scattered the treasure through the earth.

“Viking raids there were common at the time, which may be one reason why the treasure was hidden,” Mr Ruchhöft said. “It may be that the owner was killed before he could retrieve it.”

This part of north-eastern Germany near the border with Poland has suffered from depopulation and economic decline in recent decades, but it was a boom region in the early Middle Ages because of its proximity to a 6,000km trading route.

The route led across the Caspian Sea, up the Volga, north-west across Russia towards what is now St Petersburg, and along the Baltic coast towards Scandinavia and northern Germany.

The traders were Slavs, Vikings and Arabs, and the goods were mainly transported by river and sea. Viking longboats could navigate both seas and rivers because they had a shallow draught which allowed them to sail in waters just one metre deep.

“Fur, amber and slaves from here were traded for pearls, rock crystals and silver from the Orient,” Mr Ruchhöft said. The dirhams were not legal tender in Europe but their intrinsic silver value made them a common means of exchange. That explains why most of the coins from the Anklam find had been cut in half or into quarters. Only seven dirhams were found intact.

“The find shows how global trade was already going on 1,200 years ago,” Mr Ruchhöft said. “It’s unclear if deals took place face to face with Arab merchants. There is no concrete indication that traders travelled the entire length of the route.

The trade is more likely to have taken place in stages at market towns along the way.”

The silver bracelet found at Anklam was made in the Volga river region of Russia, which supports the theory of interim trading stations because it suggests that a trade took place at some point along the Volga.

Michael Schirren, of the regional department of archaeology, said: “Coin finds from this era are extremely rare and this one is really significant because of the volume.”
Arab coins have been found as far north as Sweden and as far west as the British Isles.

The coins, bracelet and silver bars together weigh some 200 grams and were worth four oxen, or one horse plus one ox plus one young slave, Mr Ruchhöft said. “One dirham was worth around 75 daily rations of wheat or one pearl.”

From The National.