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Durham University

Department of Archaeology

All Research Projects

Leprosy past and present: everything you needed to know, but were afraid to ask

A research project of the Department of Archaeology.

Background

This project, to write a book on the past and present the bacterial infection of leprosy, is almost complete and will be published by Florida University Press. It was funded by the Leverhulme Trust as a Major Research Fellowship awarded to Charlotte Roberts. The aim of the book is to dispel the many myths that still surround leprosy and the book considers the impact of leprosy on people today, including the continuing related stigma, the methods used to identify leprosy in the archaeological and historical record, and the worldwide skeletal evidence for leprosy.

An almost invisible disease today in all media, leprosy has a long history dating back to Indian historical sources of 600 BC, but skeletal evidence is much earlier in date. Many parts of the world have experienced leprosy in the past, especially Europe, and it remains a public health challenge in many countries today. While both evidence of leprosy in skeletons and medical historical data can sometimes prove problematic to interpret, the skeletal changes of leprosy are well known and have been recorded by palaeopathologists in skeletons from many contexts, time periods, and geographic areas.

This book brings together data on the global experience of leprosy through time, something that has not been done before, and through a multidisciplinary and multi-method approach will help everybody to understand the impact of this infection on humans past and present.

In press

  • Roberts CA Reflections on the bioarchaeology of leprosy and identity. In E Brenner (ed): Leprosy and identity in the Middle Ages: perspectives from West and East
  • Filipek K, Roberts CA Specific infectious disease (leprosy, TB, treponematosis, others documented in bones/teeth. In W Trevathan (ed): Int Encyclopedia of Biological Anthropology
  • Roberts CA, Brickley M Infectious and metabolic diseases: a synergistic bioarchaeology. In A Katzenberg, A Grauer (eds) Biological anthropology of the human skeleton. 3rd edition

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: http://www.gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events/the-archaeology-of-disease-documented-in-skeletons.

2015 Talk to Bedale Archaeology & History Society: The past and present of leprosy

2013 Yesterday Channel (UKTV); series called Medieval Dead (Programme on leprosy)

2011 BBC Radio Cambridge: The Naked Scientist: programme on leprosy for World Leprosy Day (30th January)

1998 BBC Radio 4: Open University (Archaeology: leprosy hospitals and leprosy)

1996 BBC Radio Scotland (Leprosy)

This was an amazing learning environment for me particularly for understanding the impact of leprosy on people today, supplementing the published literature, but also my experience of attending the previous congress in Brussels, Belgium

A cemetery I recently visited for people who died with leprosy in a leprosy hospital in rural Brazil

Published Results

Edited book

  • Roberts, C.A., Lewis, M.E., Manchester, K. & International Congress on the Evolution and Palaeoepidemiology of the Infectious Diseases (ICEPID) (3rd 1999 University of Bradford, England) (2002). The past and present of leprosy: Archaeological, historical, palaeopathological and clinical approaches: Proceedings of the International Congress on the Evolution and palaeoepidemiology of the infectious diseases (ICEPID)3rd: University of Bradford, 26th-31st July 1999. British Archaeological Reports. International Series. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Journal Article

  • Rubini, M., Zaio, P. & Roberts, C.A. (2014). Tuberculosis and leprosy in Italy. New skeletal evidence. Homo: Journal of Comparative Human Biology 65(1): 13-32.

Chapter in book

  • Roberts, CA (2017). Applying the “Index of care” to a person who experienced leprosy in late Medieval Chichester, England. In New developments in the bioarchaeology of care. Tilley, L & Schrenk, AA Cham: Springer. 101-124.
  • Roberts, CA (2013). Social aspects of the Bioarchaeology of leprosy. In The dead tell tales: Essays in honor of Jane E. Buikstra. Lozada,N & O’Donnabhain B Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press. 136-144.

Staff

From the Department of Archaeology

Further information

For further information, please contact Professor Charlotte Roberts.

Scottish Soldiers Project

Cooperating with the Palace Museum in China