Roman skeleton shows earliest TB evidence.

24 Hour Museum, which has 3 pictures.

See also the BBC News version of the story.

A training exercise for archaeology students at the University of York has lead to the discovery of a man who may have been one of Britain’s earliest victims of tuberculosis.

The remains were found on the site of the university’s £500million expansion in Heslington East near the route of an old Roman road between York and Barton-on-Humber.

A skull of a man, who was aged between 26 and 35 years and just 5 foot 4 inches tall, was discovered in May 2008 while the topsoil was being removed from a site designated for students to excavate. Following the results of the carbon dating, it has now been revealed, the man died in the 4th century AD, late Roman times.

The discovery of the body is highly significant, the man was definitely a victim of TB which developed in his spine and pelvis” said Heslington East Fieldwork Officer Cath Neal.

“Whether it manifested itself like the most common form of TB does, through coughing up blood is impossible to say. However it has been confirmed he did die from a form of TB.”

It is a very important find as TB became frequent in Britain from the 12th Century AD onwards and was extremely rare in Roman times.

The body is the first of its kind to be found in the area in over 150 years and he is believed to have been a member of a rural Roman community in contrast to the more urban Roman community who used previously discovered burial grounds three kilometres from the site.

“There were signs of muscular trauma and strong muscle attachments indicating that the individual undertook repeated physical activity while he was in good health,” said Malin Holst of York Osteoarchaelogy Ltd, who analysed the remains and confirmed the presence of TB.

It appears the man developed the disease in childhood through infected meat or milk from cattle. He then went on to lead an active lifestyle while the tuberculosis lay dormant until later life when the secondary phase of the disease killed him.

“This discovery also reveals details about life in York 1500 years ago,” added Cath Neal. “The skeleton’s burial place, isolated near a building is very unusual. While it is unclear whether the building was in use at the time the isolated state of the body, suggests that even in the 4th century AD people were suspicious of disease and suspecting it was contagious did not want to handle the remains for too long.”

The university is developing plans for community archaeology and education visits to the site once the investigations are completed. The fact the remains are human however does mean they will be buried within the next year and will not be on permanent display.

An investigation of the remains is continuing as part of a National Environmental Research Council funded research project analysing the origin evolution, spread and causes of TB in Britain and parts of Europe.

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