Burial-ground bones give clues on arthritis through the ages: Study of 3,000 exhumed skeletons shows the changing pattern of disease

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The Independent Online
DR JULIET ROGERS, of Bristol University, examining one of the thousands of bones excavated from the burial ground of an Anglo-Saxon church.

Some of the bones - which have been exhumed temporarily from the graveyard of St Peter's church at Barton-upon-Humber, south Humberside, to allow vital structural strengthening work - are more than 1,000 years old, and scientists are taking the opportunity to conduct important medical research.

The excavations yielded more than 3,000 human remains, and many are marked with signs of disease which researchers at the university's department of rheumatology are tracking through the ages. Cases of gout and of psoriatic arthropathy (the disease from which the late playwright Dennis Potter suffered) have been found. Diseases of the joints are the most common, and there are a few cases of infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis.

Dr Rogers said: 'The prevalence of arthritis as a whole is similar, but rheumatoid arthritis (a disease of the auto-immune system) is much less frequent than it is today.' Patterns of osteo-arthritis have changed as well. In pre-medieval times, according to Dr Rogers, osteo-arthritis affected the hip more frequently than the knee - a reversal of the current situation.

Dr Rogers said she believed her investigations would be a valuable resource for medical research.

The first bodies to be buried at St Peter's date from about AD 800, and the last burials took place in the 1840s or 1850s. The bones will be returned for reburial when building work is complete.

(Photograph omitted)

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