One of Britain's earliest victims of tuberculosis could be the skeleton of a man in a shallow grave on the site of the University of York's campus expansion.
The remains were discovered during archaeological investigations on the site of the University's 500 million pound expansion at Heslington East.
AdvertisementArchaeologists unearthed the skeleton close to the perimeter of the remains of a late-Roman masonry building discovered on the site, close to the route of an old Roman road between York and Barton-on-Humber.
Radiocarbon dating suggests that the man died in the fourth century. He was interred in a shallow scoop in a flexed position, on his left side.
The man, aged 26-35 years, suffered from iron deficiency anaemia during childhood and at 162 centimetres (5ft 4in), was a shorter height than average for Roman males.
The first known case of TB in Britain is from the Iron Age (300 BC), but cases in the Roman period are fairly rare, and largely confined to the southern half of England.
TB is most frequent from the 12th century AD in England when people were living in urban environments. So, the skeleton may provide crucial evidence for the origin and development of the disease in this country.
Detailed analysis of the skeleton by Malin Holst, of York Osteoarchaeology Ltd, revealed that a likely cause of death was tuberculosis, which affected the man's spine and pelvis.
According to Holst, it is possible that he contracted the disease as a child from infected meat or milk from cattle, but equally the infection could have been inhaled into the lungs.
The disease then lay dormant until adulthood when the secondary phase of the disease took its toll.
"This was a remarkable find and detailed study of this skeleton will provide us with important clues about the emergence of tuberculosis in late-Roman Britain, but also information about what life was like in York more than 1,500 years ago," said Heslington East Fieldwork Officer Cath Neal, of the University's Department of Archaeology.
"It is possible that the man was buried here because the tuberculosis infection was so rare at the time, and people were reluctant to transport the body any distance," she added.
According to Holst, "There were signs of muscular trauma and strong muscle attachments indicating that the individual undertook repeated physical activity while he was in good health."
"There was some intensive wear and chipping on his front teeth which may have been the result of repeated or habitual activity. There was evidence for infection of the bone in both lower limbs but this appeared to be healing at death," he added.
Investigation of the remains is continuing.
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