This week we look at one of the most influential articles written by Dr Calvin Wells, identifying a very early case of leprosy (Hansen’s disease): “as far as I know, the earliest British example to be described”.
Dr Wells, as we already saw, brought his medical training to the study of human bones, exploring the diseases and accidents from which past people suffered: palaeopathology. He had often seen skeletons showing signs of possible leprosy, but he had been cautious in proclaiming them as cases of that disease. There were so many other conditions that could produce a similar appearance in the bones of feet, hands or face. In this case, however, having considered all the possibilities, he was sure.
The skeleton in question, known as A8, belonged to a very strong man aged between 25 and 35. He died sometime around the year 500 AD. Dr Wells reported that the bones of A8′s feet were badly damaged by infectious disease, with the phalanges and metatarsal heads entirely destroyed. He concluded that “These feet are absolutely typical of advanced leprosy. Despite their Early Saxon date they could be used to illustrate a modern textbook of pathology.”
A8 was buried in an early Anglo-Saxon cemetery found at Beckford (near Evesham) during gravel-digging work in 1954. Archaeologists quickly excavated the graves then the process of analysis began. Dr Wells, as an expert in this subject, was asked to report on the human bones during the late 1950s.
He decided, with permission, to publicise the discovery of this almost certain case of leprosy in advance of publication of the excavation report. The Calvin Wells Archive includes a letter from Vera Evison, the archaeologist who had dug the cemetery. She had been “very puzzled at the absence of toes” on A8 so Dr Wells’ diagnosis made sense to her.
The full report was published in 1996 by the Council for British Archaeology. It unites the story of A8′s leprosy with details of his grave and those of the people he lived with. As if he did not have enough difficulties, it seems A8 also had spina bifida.
We get the faintest sense of him as a person from his grave-goods. A8 was buried with various objects including a yew-wood bucket, a bronze ear-scoop and a spearhead. As he had more goods than anyone else in the cemetery, he may have been an important person in his society.
A woman, A11, who died in her late twenties, was buried next to him. She also had many goods in her grave (brooches and beads), showed possible signs of leprosy and had similar back problems to A8: perhaps his sister? Dr Wells noted that A8′s grave also contained the bones of two small dogs “one about the size of a terrier, one the size of a whippet”.
A8, A11 and their companions would have led tough lives with little comfort and gritty food. The report writers concluded that the Beckford community was poor, isolated and inbred. It is not surprising therefore to find leprosy in such a setting: it is a disease most likely to be experienced by people living in poverty and difficult conditions.
- The article: Wells, Calvin “A Possible Case of Leprosy from a Saxon Cemetery at Beckford”. Medical History, 1962 October; 6(4): 382–386. Available online via Pub Med Central. (STOP PRESS 4 Oct – this link may not work as Pub Meb is affected by US government shut-down. Apols if so, I am sure it will be back in due course).
- The excavation report: Evison, Vera I. and Hill, Prue. Two Anglo-Saxon Cemeteries at Beckford, Hereford and Worcester. Council for British Archaeology, 1996. CBA Research Report 103.
- File CAL 1/16 in the Calvin Wells Archive includes notes, typescripts and correspondence concerning the human bones from Beckford burials.
- You can find out more about the impact of leprosy on bones and see many high-quality 3D images on the websites for University of Bradford projects From Cemetery to Clinic and Digitised Diseases.
Thanks to my colleagues Sarah George and Jo Buckberry for their assistance with this article.