Notes of the Osteological Association’s 2008 symposium part 2

These are notes that will be edited, I urge you to comment on anything that seems to be out of place or faulty so that I can correct this. The intention is to compress these notes into a far shorter and more focused version to be printed in the Swedish Osteological Associations journal Benbiten during 2008. 

“The Paleopathology of Kirchberg”

Fil.Dr. Nikolaos Roumelis


The lecture holds the same name as Roumelis dissertation that was put forward in September 2007. The complete title is: The Paleopathology of Kirchberg – Evidence of Deficiency, Inflammatory and Tumorous Disease on a Medieval Rural population in Hessia, Germany. The abstract is available on-line here. The thesis as well as the lecture concerns the skeletal remains of 274 individuals excavated from Kirchberg medieval cemetery. The burials have been made between 700 AD – 1600 AD. Kirchberg is located between Fritzlar and Kassel by the river Ems, in the north Hessian mountains where the climate is cold and damp. The skeletal remains show proof of hard burdens, diseases, revolts and wars.  Most of the analyzed skeletons are of farmers. As the farmers lived closed to and sometimes with their lively stock it is possible that disease might have been transported between man and animal. Methods used to identify markers on the skeleton due to disease are: 

  • Microscopic examination
  • Macroscopic examination
  • Radiographic and endoscopic examinations

The finding of skeletal metastasis, tumorous disease, is high: in males 19,5% and on women 9,6%. When divided into age groups (men & women) 10,5 % of those younger than 50 and 12,9 % of those over 50 had traces of skeletal metastasis, subadults are excluded from the < 50 group. 

Then why is the frequency so high? There are several possiblities, for example:

  • This could due to environmental factors
  • Health deprivation could weaken the immune system
  • Genetic factors

There is also another possibility, the frequency might not be as high as it seems as this analysis is made with different methods than most others. 

Other common disease is Rhinitis. The traces of this can be found on the nasal floor on the cranium. The bone structure becomes different due to the additions of bone plates and bone structures. 

Tuberculosis most frequently affects the vertebrae column. But there can also be signs of meningeal tuberculosis on the parietal, seen as small impressions. Basal cranial tuberculosis causes small tubercles, epithelial granulomas, in the region of the meninges and is usually located on the basal cranium in the region of cranial fossae.  A microscopic view of the skeletal changes is necessary as similar marks can be caused by soil erosion. 

Roumelis show cased examples of the methods he have used on the material by using pictures of different identified markers of diseases taken using different methods. One example is the study of osteons and osteoblasts, on the long bones, and how they change due to disease. Each osteon consists of concentric layers, or lamellas, of compact bone tissue that surround a central canal, the Haversian canal. The Haversian canal contains the bone’s nerve and blood supplies. As some disease affect the bone, it affects the osteons as well. In a microscope or with macroscopic methods these affects can be studied and interpreted.

The population of Kirschberg were seemingly ill as the frequency of identified disease can show you, here divided into adults and subadults.

  • Maxillary sinusitis; ca 93% Adults – 78% Subadults
  • Rhinitis; ca 74% Adults – 64% Subadults
  • Otitis media; ca 77% Adults – 74% Subadults
  • Meningitis; ca 83% Adults – 46% Subadults
  • Pleurisy; ca 54% Adults – 4% Subadults
  • Tuberculosis; ca 23% Adults – 16% Subadults
  • Scurvy; ca 0% Adults – 59% Subadults
  • Tumorous metastasis disease ca; 11,5% Adults – 0% Subadults
  • Anemia; ca 18% Adults – 37% Subadults

In the Roumelis PhD theses there are statistics for a lot more. Several individuals had more than one disease but not necessary at the same time. Deficiency diseases such as anemia, scurvy and chronic respiratory disease might lead to weaken the immune system. Through the questions Nikolaos Roumelis told that it is difficult to compare the statistics from his analysis as no analysis are made in accordance to his model, yet, though parts of it could probably be compared with parts of other analysis. This summary doesn’t really manage to reproduce the lecture as pictures exemplified much of it. For example how something looks when examined by eye in comparison with microscope or macroscopic examination etc, though it seems Kirchberg wasn’t the healthiest place to live. In the theses many of these pictures and others are printed to illustrate both method and result. 

The Paleopathology of Kirchberg

To be continued…

Some notes on this lecture were a bit hasty so if you have notes please fill me in if you feel that I missed out on something.

Remember that these are notes that will be edited, I urge you to comment on anything that seems to be out of place or faulty so that I can correct this. The intention is to compress these notes into a far shorter and more focused version to be printed in the Swedish Osteological Associations journal Benbiten during 2008.

Magnus Reuterdahl


About Magnus Reuterdahl

I am an archaeologist/Osteologist from Sweden. My main intrest lays in north Euorpean archaeology in, preferbly the prehistory of the late iron age and the neolithic periods. I've also got a strong intrest for Chinese archaeology, especially the neolithc Yangshao culture. I also write about cultural heritage and cultural history. Mitt namn är Magnus Reuterdahl, jag är arkeolog och osteolog och arbetar företrädesvis i Sverige även om jag gjort ett par vändor till Kina. På den här bloggen skriver jag om mitt yrke, om fornlämningar, kulturarv och kulturhistoria m m. View all posts by Magnus Reuterdahl

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