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Durham University

Department of Archaeology

All Research Projects

Understanding cardiovascular disease in the archaeological record

A research project of the Department of Archaeology.


Evidence for cardiovascular disease in the past (diseases that affect the heart or blood vessels), has been only documented in medical historical information (documents and artworks), and in preserved bodies (e.g. Gaeta et al 2013: Italian Renaissance mummy). There is also a perception that cardiovascular disease, characteristic particularly of the second epidemiological transition (Roberts 2015), is a recent phenomenon. However, there is increasing evidence that it is possible to explore this disease using skeletal remains (e.g. see Binder and Roberts 2014), both directly (e.g. calcified arteries) and indirectly (by looking for evidence of disease that can be related to cardiovascular disease, e.g. a complication of rheumatoid arthritis). This project will provide readers of a resulting volume with new insights, challenges, and ways forward to understanding the history of cardiovascular disease.

The project originated with a poster symposium at the Annual Conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists St Louis, Missouri, USA in 2015 co-organized by Dr Michaela Binder (Austrian Archaeological Institute, Vienna, Austria), and Charlotte Roberts, and will result in an edited volume to be published by Cambridge University Press and led by Dr Michaela Binder, with Charlotte Roberts, and Daniel Antoine (British Museum).

Public engagement

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

2016  Wensleydale Society: "Skeletons in closets": what have our ancestors told us about living in northern England in the past?

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

Types of arterial calcification, or ‘how arteries get blocked in cardiovascular disease’ (Trustees of the British Museum)

Part of a female adult skeleton buried at the site of Amara West, Sudan (1300-800 BC). Note the arrow pointing to calcifications of the femoral artery next to this person’s femur/thigh bone, indicating she probably had cardiovascular disease (from Binder and Roberts 2014); Trustees of the British Museum

Published Results

Journal Article

  • Binder, M. & Roberts, C.A. (2014). Calcified structures associated with human skeletal remains: Possible atherosclerosis affecting the population buried at Amara West, Sudan (1300–800 BC). International Journal of Paleopathology 6: 20-29.

Chapter in book

  • Roberts, C.A. (2015). What did agriculture do for us? The bioarchaeology of health and diet. In The Cambridge World History. Volume 2: A world with agriculture, 12,000 BCE-500 CE. Barker, G. & Goucher, C. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 93-123.


From the Department of Archaeology

Scottish Soldiers Project

Cooperating with the Palace Museum in China