Online in 3D: the ‘grotesque beauty’ of medieval Britons’ diseased bones
Digitised Diseases site makes 1,600 specimens available for doctors and members of the public to study for free
The bones of a young woman who died of syphilis more than 500 years ago, the reassembled jaw of a man whose corpse was sold to surgeons at the London hospital in the 19th century and the contorted bone of an 18th-century man who lived for many years after he was shot through the leg, are among the remains of hundreds of individuals which can now be studied in forensic detail on a new website.
The Digitised Diseases website, to be launched on Monday at the Royal College of Surgeons in London, brings together 1,600 specimens, many from people with excruciating conditions including leprosy and rickets, from stores scattered across various university and medical collections. The original crumbling bones of some specimens now available in 3D scans are too fragile to be handled. The database is intended for professionals, but is also available free to members of the public who may be fascinated by the macabre specimens.
“We believe this will be a unique resource both for archaeologists and medical historians to identify diseases in ancient specimens, but also for clinicians who can see extreme forms of chronic diseases which they would never see nowadays in their consulting rooms, left to progress unchecked before any medical treatment was available. These bones show conditions only available before either by travelling to see them, or in grainy black and white photographs in old textbooks,” said Andrew Wilson, senior lecturer in forensic and archaeological sciences at the University of Bradford and the lead researcher on the project. He added: “I do think members of the public will also find them gripping – they do have what one observer called ‘a grotesque beauty’.”
Some of the conditions were thought to have been almost eliminated but are now on the increase, including diseases of poverty such as tuberculosis and rickets.
“If the vivid evidence of these bones flags up the importance of taking these conditions very seriously and tackling them early, so much the better,” Wilson said.
Bradford University holds the remains of 4,000 men, women and children dating back to Anglo-Saxon times, including bones from the Battle of Towton, the bloodiest ever fought on English soil, in Yorkshire on Palm Sunday 1461. Those bones were consulted by the team which excavated the remains of Richard III in Leicester last year, as evidence of the terrible injuries inflicted on medieval battlefields.
Other specimens came from the cemetery of a 12th-century hospital in Chichester that treated leprosy, one of the most dreaded diseases of the middle ages. Bones also came from a cemetery in Gloucester, excavated in 1991, which as well as the Dominican friars whose churchyard it was, included hundreds of people buried between 1246 and 1539. These included the skull showing signs of advanced syphilis, including loss of bone around the nose, jaw and cranium, of a woman aged between 18 and 25.
Other bones came from a previously unknown burial ground at the London Hospital and excavated in 2006 by archaeologists from the Museum of London. They were the remains of the unfortunate poor who died in the hospital and were dissected by its surgeons. They died in greater number than the hospital’s own anatomy school could use: some were sold to other hospitals, and body snatchers targeted the burial ground. The Bradford team manage to reunite three fragments of the same jaw, found in a jumble of bones from many individuals tipped into the same grave, which showed clearly the straight cut marks of the anatomists: their 3D film of the reassembled jaw was seen in the Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men exhibition at the Museum of London last year.
One long leg bone was evidently turned on a lathe – “for purposes we can only speculate on,” Wilson said.
He takes comfort from the fact that many of the individuals, including people who would have been bent double by spinal damage, or left too lame to walk or work, lived for many years with their conditions. “It’s important to remember that these are not just academic specimens, but the remains of real human beings – and in many cases it is clear that they were not just discarded as useless or shunned but accepted and cared for. This is by no means just a freak show.”