French paleopathologist Philippe Charlier studies illness in the
ancient Mediterranean world
BONES, teeth and hair are invaluable to DNA researchers striving to
prolong human life, but are just as vital to another discipline
investigating the equally gripping world of death.
"In antiquity, one was usually better off drinking wine every day
instead of water. That way, you could die of cirrhosis in 40-50
years, instead of typhoid in a week," says Philippe Charlier, a
French paleopathologist tracking human illness in the Mediterranean
from prehistory to the end of antiquity.
In early March, Charlier conducted research on the Mycenaean
stronghold of Argos in the Peloponnese. The French Archaeological
School discovered there a necropolis rich in burial relics, but it
was bones that the 25-year-old paleopathologist was after.
"I was able to study the remains of a four-month-old foetus (the
probable result of an abortion). Such finds are very rare," he tells
the Athens News. "Throwing babies away was a horrible practice, but
now it constitutes fantastic documentation."
In Argos, Charlier found instances of anaemia, malformation,
tuberculosis, malnutrition, rickets, dental caries and what seemed to
be a case of polio.
As in later years, infectious disease is suspected to have been a
major scourge in the ancient world. Though broadly seen as a 19th-
century pandemic, tuberculosis has existed since the advent of
agriculture, as has brucellosis. Both bacterial diseases are spread
Among Charlier's most memorable study subjects was a baby with no
brain - the likely result of inbreeding, or excessive intoxication on
the part of the mother during gestation. "Its tailbone was open, and
the brain had seeped out through the spine," he says. "We still get
cases like that, spina bifida, when pregnant women take medicine
The baby came from a slave necropolis in Rome, where Charlier found
"You can still see the debauch in the bones," he says. Paleopathology
is a relatively new specialisation. According to Charlier, who holds
PhDs in archaeology and medicine, it has effectively taken off in the
last 20-30 years.
In the past seven years, the Frenchman has also scoured Etruscan
cemeteries in Italy and Celtic warrior burial grounds in Burgundy,
He found one in 10 Celts to be carrying treponema, a bacterium
related to that of syphilis. Several had hip deformities caused by
riding, and many suffered from arthritis.
Cancer was an established killer in the ancient world due to the lead
mixed into bronze vessels, as was, to a lesser extent, syphilis and
tooth decay. In the Rome necropolis, Charlier found two slaves
wearing prosthetics made of ivory and gold, probably provided by
their owners. "Ivory was not a very good option in this case," he
notes. "It has a tendency to blacken rather rapidly."
Paleopathologists value tooth finds for their tartar, which can be a
priceless indicator showing similarities between the ancient and
modern Mediterranean diet. "A lot of cereals, a little meat, sea food
and vegetables. But the meat was full of parasites, and the water had
a lot of cholera and typhoid in it," says Charlier.
Another expert, Luigi Capasso of Gabriele D'Annunzio University in
Chieti, Italy, has broken new ground on the ailments of Imperial
Roman citizens. He worked on Herculaneum, a Roman town destroyed
alongside Pompeii by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. The
volcanic ash and mud that buried the town has even preserved cheese,
providing paleopathologists with excellent subject matter.
The finds at Herculaneum
Capasso notes that at least one in five Herculaneum skulls shows
irritation likely caused by lice, which were quite common in ancient
Rome. "Both Sulla the Dictator and the Greek poet Alcman died as a
result of their infestation," he wrote to The Lancet in March 1998.
Capasso was able to isolate a louse egg from the head of a 25-year-
old woman, a strand of whose hair was preserved when the volcanic
eruption melted her iron hairpin.
The excellent state of Herculaneum's skeletons has also enabled the
Italian paleopathologist to detect cases of pleurisy, probably caused
by indoor pollution. The Romans burned animal and vegetable oils for
light, and wood or animal dung as fuel, filling their homes with
carbon and other toxic gases.
Other paleopathologists are currently concentrating on Egyptian and
Peruvian mummies and French prehistoric skeletons, and there are
efforts to establish a link between specific deformities and race.
Funerary practices can contradict ancient scripts on the workings of
contemporary society. Charlier found evidence that not all
communities ostracised deformed individuals, as is commonly
assumed. "Those living in the countryside probably took better care
of people with deformities," he says.
BY JOHN HADOULIS
ATHENS NEWS , 28/03/2003, page: A12
Article code: C13007A121
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