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Durham University

Department of Archaeology


Publication details for Professor Charlotte Roberts

Von Hunnius, T., Roberts, C.A., Saunders S. & Boylston, A. (2006). Histological identification of syphilis in pre-Columbian England. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 129(4): 559-566.

Author(s) from Durham


Microscopic analyses served to complement the macroscopic identification of venereal syphilis in two of four pre-Columbian skeletons from the site Hull Magistrates Court in England. Diagnosis was based on parameters presented by Schultz ([[1994]] Origin of Syphilis in Europe, Toulon: Centre Archaeologique du Var, p. 63-67; [2001] Yrbk. Phys. Anthropol. 44:106-147; [2003] Identification of Pathological Conditions in Human Remains, New York: Academic Press, p. 73-109), which characterized venereal syphilis at a histological level. Observation of the microarchitecture of these samples allowed a more comprehensive approach to identification of the disease (processes). In most samples, Polsters and Grenzstreifen (or remnants of such structures) could be identified, suggesting the presence of a chronic, inflammatory disease such as venereal syphilis. Sinous lacunae were also observed in all histological samples, pointing to lytic activity (osteitis). The combination of both proliferative and destructive processes is pathognomonic for syphilis, and histological analyses provided a more accurate diagnosis of this infectious disease in these four individuals. As a result, the histological evidence suggests that venereal syphilis was present in England prior to 1492. This secondary form of evidence supports the macroscopic identification of the disease, and shows the power of a multimethodological approach to paleopathological diagnoses.