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Durham University

Department of Archaeology

All Research Projects

The history of syphilis: developing more nuanced approaches to understanding its impact on the past

A research project of the Department of Archaeology.


Treponemal disease, encompassing pinta, bejel, yaws, venereal and congenital syphilis, is a bacterial infection that has a long history. It is also very much in our world today (, including venereal syphilis, along with other sexually transmitted diseases. Venereal syphilis, a sexually transmitted infection, has particularly fascinated scholars particularly from both medical history and bioarchaeology (palaeopathology), with the media and the public always having their part to play in debates. There have been particular landmarks in the study of this infection, including Baker and Armelagos (1988), Dutour et al (1994), Powell and Cook (2005) and Harper et al (2011). There have also been several attempts to isolate the DNA of the bacterium, so far unsuccessfully, and work in this field of palaeopathology is developing.

Recently, and organized by Brenda Baker of Arizona State University, Tempe, USA and Gillian Crane-Kramer (State University of New York, Plattsburgh, New York State, USA), a small group of invited scholars from different disciplines gathered in Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA at the School for Advanced Research to move the debates on this infectious disease forward (funded by SAR). Scholars representing medicine, bioarchaeology, medical history, archaeological dating, and biomolecular science spent a three-day seminar to exploring the “state of play”. Its outcomes have led to a series of recommendations and more activities are planned. These include a key publication to extend and consolidate what we actually know about this infection and, even more importantly, what we need to know.


  • Roberts CA 1994 Treponematosis in Gloucester, England: a theoretical and practical approach to the pre-Columbian theory. In O Dutour, GPalfi, J-P Brun (eds): L'origine de la syphilis en Europe. Avant ou apres 1493? Centre Archeologique du Var, Editions Errance, pp. 101-108.
  • Roberts CA, Millard AR, Nowell GM, Grocke D, Macpherson C, Pearson G, Evans D 2013 The origin and mobility of people with venereal syphilis buried in Hull, England in the late Medieval period. American J Physical Anthropology 150:273-285

In press

  • Filipek K, Roberts CA Bioarchaeology of infectious disease. In W Trevathan (ed): International Encyclopedia of Biological Anthropology. John Wiley and Sons, Inc.
  • Roberts CA, Redfern R The history of treponematosis continues to be one of the most contentious issues in science ‘ (Ortner 2003:273) – some perspectives from bioarchaeology. In S Sretzer (ed): The hidden affliction. Rochester U.P./Boydell & Brewer History of Medicine series
  • Roberts CA Infectious disease III: bacterial infections. In JE Buikstra (ed): Ortner’s Identification of pathological conditions in human skeletal remains. Elsevier
  • Working paper for Santa Fe Seminar: Roberts CA 2018: Treponemal disease in the Old World (Europe): a critical review of the skeletal evidence

Relevant public engagement

2018 Bodies of evidence. How science unearthed Durham’s dark secret. Palace Green Library Special Exhibition (June to October 2018)

2015 The archaeology of disease documented in skeletons. Gresham College Public Lecture:

2000 Channel 4: History of syphilis (Secrets of the Dead)

1999 BBC Digital: History Fix (Screenhouse Productions, Leeds, with Rory McGrath) – syphilis

1995 BBC Radio 4: On the hoof (syphilis)

Cast of the back of an actual skull showing the effect of venereal syphilis


From the Department of Archaeology

Scottish Soldiers Project

Cooperating with the Palace Museum in China