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Durham University

Department of Archaeology


Publication details for Professor Charlotte Roberts

Roberts, C.A., Boylston, A., Buckley, L., Chamberlain, A. & Murphy, E. (1998). Rib lesions and tuberculosis: the palaeopathological evidence. Tubercle and Lung Disease 79(1): 55-60.

Author(s) from Durham


Setting:Tuberculosis diagnosis in past populations relies on lesions in the spine and major weight bearing joints of the body. Bone formation on visceral surfaces of ribs has also been suggested to be the result of chronic pulmonary disease.

Objective:To test whether these lesions are the result of pulmonary infection (most likely tuberculosis), by reviewing past work, and to discuss whether these lesions could be considered another diagnostic criterion for pulmonary tuberculosis.

Design:A review of the literature on new bone formation on ribs, and consideration of further evidence from archaeological skeletal material from the UK.

Results:Results from modern studies suggest that bone formation on ribs is often the result of pulmonary tuberculosis, that lesions are relatively common in archaeological skeletal material, and that some skeletons have rib lesions plus pathognomonic changes of tuberculosis.

Conclusion:Evidence suggests that new bone formation on visceral surfaces of ribs should be considered a possible indicator of tuberculosis. If accepted, historical evidence, when correlated with rib data, produces closer approximations to the frequency of the disease in the past. This study indicates the importance of palaeopathology in identifying sometimes subtle lesions that may not be noted by clinicians because of their non-visibility on radiographs.