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Durham University

Department of Archaeology

All Research Projects

Investigating Morbidity and Malaria in Anglo-Saxon Wetland Environments

A research project of the Department of Archaeology.


Historical evidence indicates that the impact of low lying wetland environments on the health of past populations was profound. Malaria (specifically plasmodium vivax) has been strongly implicated in the morbidity and mortality data recorded for historical populations living in wetland environments. A large number of Anglo-Saxon cemetery and settlement sites have been excavated from such locales. This British Academy funded research aims to apply the current methodologies of spatial epidemiology to palaeopathological data in order to assess the health of these populations compared with those living on higher land. This project is managed by Dr Becky Gowland and is in collaboration with research assistants Gaynor Western and Martin Redding.

We have found statistically significant correlations between geology, topography, the putative presence of endemic malaria and the spatial distribution of cribra orbitalia (CO) prevalence rates amongst Anglo-Saxon populations in England. The precise aetiology of CO is unknown. However, in palaeopathology, it is generally associated with haemolytic and megaloblastic anaemias. Malaria is well established clinically to be accompanied by haemolytic anaemia and has historically been distributed in very specific environments in England (i.e. low lying wetland areas). The initial findings of the project have been promising and research continues with further analysis of the relationship between health and environment in Fenland areas. PhD student Ross Kendall is developing a methodology for the immunological detection of malaria from human bones. We are also interested in the inter-relationship between disease ecology and social identity, in particular the creation of marginal identities.

Published Results

Journal Article

  • Gowland, R.L. & Western, A.G. (2012). Morbidity in the Marshes: Using Spatial Epidemiology to Investigate Skeletal Evidence for Malaria in Anglo-Saxon England (AD410-1050). American Journal of Physical Anthropology 147(2): 301-311.

Chapter in book

  • Gowland, R. L. & Garnsey, P. (2010). Skeletal evidence for health, nutritional status and malaria in Rome and the empire. In Roman diasporas; archaeological approaches to mobility and diversity in the Roman Empire. Eckardt, Hella Journal of Roman Archaeology. Supplement 78: 131-156.


From the Department of Archaeology

Scottish Soldiers Project

Cooperating with the Palace Museum in China