Italian archaeologists working in a medieval cemetery of Campochiaro in Central Italy excavated hundreds of graves that date to between the 6th and 8th centuries A.D. In an article published a few years ago, the archaeologists describe the remains of a “leper warrior” who was 161cm (or 5’3”) tall and was more than 50 years old when he died. When the researchers examined this soldier’s skeleton they found indications of sharp force trauma to his forehead, osteoarthritis in his spine, and leprous destruction to the bones of his face, hands, and feet.
Leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, is a mycobacterial disease, like tuberculosis, that is caused by M. leprae bacteria. It’s spread by “airborne nasal secretions,” the bacteria can’t be spread through touch. Leprosy is thought to have originated in Eastern Africa or the Near East then moved to Europe. It was common in Europe during the Middle Ages and reached its peak between the 12th and 14th centuries.
Hansen’s disease is mainly a disease of the skin and nervous system, but the infection can move to the skeleton. Leprotic bacteria will infect muscles of the hands and feet, causing fingers and toes to contract and nerves to atrophy. Hands and feet will weaken and become paralyzed. People with leprosy can also get secondary infections, like osteomyelitis, from injuries they cannot feel.
The bones in the face, hands, and feet are most often resorbed. If leprosy destroys the bones of the skull it’s called rhinomaxillary syndrome. Rhinomaxillary syndrome means that the maxilla and nasal bones have been obliterated and resorbed by the disease. Leprous destruction in the hands and feet will start in the tips of the fingers and toes (phalanges) and move inward toward the hand. The bones will waste away and become narrower in a process called pencilling.
Italian archaeologists working at the Campochiaro cemetery excavation found that the “leper warrior” suffered rhinomaxillary syndrome because the bones of his face and nose showed signs of destruction. There was also bone resorption in his hands and feet, which would have caused muscle weakness and numbness in his fingers and toes, something that would have made it hard to swing a heavy sword or axe in battle. This would have made a brutal life exponentially more difficult.
Meyers, K. (2011 June 9). The Cemetery of the Barbarian Warriors. Bones Don’t Lie. Retrieved on February 16, 2014 from: http://bonesdontlie.wordpress.com/2011/06/09/the-cemetery-of-the-barbarian-warriors/
Pappas, S. (2011 April 7). Bones of Leper Warrior Found in Medieval Cemetery. LiveScience. Retrieved on February 16, 2014 from: http://www.livescience.com/13607-bones-leper-warrior.html
Waldron, T. (2008). Paleopathology (Cambridge Manuals in Archaeology). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.