An international team led by the University of Leiden examined a 1500 year old male skeleton, excavated at Great Chesterford in Essex (south east England) during the 1950s. The bones of the man, probably in his 20s, show changes consistent with leprosy, such as narrowing of the toe bones and damage to the joints, suggesting a very early British case. Modern scientific techniques applied by the researchers have now confirmed the man did suffer from the disease and that he may have come from southern Scandinavia.
Archaeologist Dr Sonia Zakrzewski, of the University of Southampton, explains DNA testing was necessary to get a clear diagnosis: “Not all cases of leprosy can be identified by changes to the skeleton. Some may leave no trace on the bones; others will affect bones in a similar way to other diseases. In these cases the only way to be sure is to use DNA fingerprinting, or other chemical markers characteristic of the leprosy bacillus.”
Isotopes from the man’s teeth showed that he probably did not come from Britain, but more likely grew up elsewhere in northern Europe, perhaps southern Scandinavia. This matched the results of the DNA, and raises the intriguing possibility that he brought a Scandinavian strain of the leprosy bacterium with him when he migrated to Britain. There are cases in early skeletons from western Europe, particularly from the 7th century CE onward. However the origins of these ancient cases are poorly understood. The study of the Great Chesterford skeleton provides an important opportunity to shed light on the early spread of leprosy.
Foot bones of the Great Chesterford skeleton