Page last updated at 15:04 GMT, Tuesday, 16 September 2008 16:04 UK

Roman skeleton may give TB clues

Roman skeleton
The skeleton is an unusual find

A newly-discovered Roman skeleton could be one of the earliest British victims of tuberculosis, experts believe.

Archaeologists hope the discovery will reveal clues about how the deadly disease spread across Britain.

The man's remains - which date from the fourth century AD - were found on a construction site at York University.

The first known case of TB in Britain is from the Iron Age - but finding cases from Roman times is still rare, especially in the north.

It is possible that the man was buried here because the tuberculosis infection was so rare at the time, and people were reluctant to transport the body any distance
Cath Neal
University of York

Most finds have been confined to the southern half of England.

If the new case is confirmed as TB it could provide scientists with a valuable tool to trace the movement of the disease as it is relatively rare for specimens to be discovered in the UK that date from any earlier than the 12th century.

Archaeologist Cath Neal, from the University of York said: "This was a remarkable find and detailed study of this skeleton will provide us with important clues about the emergence of tuberculosis in late-Roman Britain, but also information about what life was like in York more than 1,500 years ago.

Unusual burial

"A burial such as this, close to living quarters, is unusual for this period when most burials were in formal cemeteries.

Examining the skeleton
The skeleton has been closely analysed

"It is possible that the man was buried here because the tuberculosis infection was so rare at the time, and people were reluctant to transport the body any distance."

The remains were discovered during archaeological investigations on the site of the university's 500m expansion at Heslington East.

He was interred in a shallow scoop in a flexed position, on his left side.

Tests showed he was between 26- and 35-years-old and suffered from iron deficiency anaemia during childhood.

The man was shorter than average for Roman males at 5ft 4in.

The skeleton was found close to the perimeter of the remains of a late-Roman masonry building discovered on the site, close to the route of an old Roman road between York and Barton-on-Humber.

Detailed analysis of the skeleton by Malin Holst, of York Osteoarchaeology Ltd, revealed that a likely cause of death was tuberculosis which affected the man's spine and pelvis.

She said that it is possible that he contracted the disease as a child from infected meat or milk from cattle, but equally the infection could have been inhaled into the lungs.

The disease then lay dormant until adulthood when the secondary phase of the disease took its toll.

Ms Holst said: "There were signs of muscular trauma and strong muscle attachments indicating that the individual undertook repeated physical activity while he was in good health.

"There was some intensive wear and chipping on his front teeth which may have been the result of repeated or habitual activity.

"There was evidence for infection of the bone in both lower limbs but this appeared to be healing at death."

05 Aug 08 |  Health

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