Medieval skeletons excavated by the University give clues to the origin of leprosy

Archaeologists at the University of Winchester have contributed to a new piece of research which gives unique insights into the genetic origins of leprosy.

Archaeologists at the University of Winchester have contributed to a new piece of research which gives unique insights into the genetic origins of leprosy.

The research, published by Science magazine, is a genome-wide comparison of medieval and modern Mycobacterium leprae, the bacterium that causes leprosy.

University archaeologists Dr Simon Roffey and Dr Katie Tucker helped author the research and supplied the UK medieval skeletons that underwent the DNA comparison techniques. The skeletons were excavated from the hospital of St Mary Magdalen in Winchester, a site that the Department of Archaeology has been extensively researching since 2007.

“Our work at St Mary Magdalen has focused on the buildings, burials and artefacts with the aim of studying the history and development of the former medieval leprosy hospital,” commented Dr Roffey. “Now our work is feeding into the scientific origins of leprosy and as a result we are finding out a lot more about the disease.”

Dr Roffey and Dr Tucker’s analysis indicates skeletal evidence of leprosy in over 85 per cent of the burials found at St Mary Magdalen, and this is the largest percentage recorded in Britain.

“I believe St Mary Magdalen is home to one of Britain’s earliest known hospitals, founded in the mid to late 11th Century, and that it was a pioneering hospital created as a response to the sudden spread of leprosy in England,” said Dr Roffey. “This idea is further supported by the genome research that has revealed that the disease spread during the time of the Crusades. I think it might also be linked to the increased popularity of pilgrimage, especially to the Holy Land, during this period.”

The archaeological work at the site is led by Dr Roffey and Dr Phil Marter, and the site is used as a training excavation for undergraduate and postgraduate archaeology students studying at the University of Winchester.

The article published in Science magazine can be read in full atwww.sciencemag.org/content/early/2013/06/12/science.1238286.abstract