Bones of leper warrior found in Lombard cemetery

Skull of warrior with Hansen's disease, characteristic wasting of bone visible in nose, upper jaw areaArchaeological excavations of the early medieval necropolis in Morrione, in the central Italian region of Molise, have uncovered the bones of a warrior with leprosy. He was approximately 50 years old, and appears to have died from one sword blow to the head. Since lepers were treated like, well, lepers (i.e., societal outcasts separated in life and death from the “clean” population), it’s a surprising discovery to find someone with Hansen’s disease who lived, fought, died and was buried with his comrades.

The skeleton of a female between 40 and 46 years old was also found in the necropolis. There is very little osteological data about leprosy in the archaeological record of Italy. The two skeletons discovered might be able to provide a great deal of new information about the pathological and sociological history of the disease in Italy.

The cemetery was in use between the sixth and eighth centuries. There was no permanent settlement at that time, so the burial ground had to have been used by the Lombards, a Germanic people who invaded Italy in 568 along with their allies the Avars, a Eurasian confederation of nomadic warriors, who had a military outpost in the area.

[The warrior’s] bones show the telltale wasting and mutilation of leprosy, now known as Hansen’s disease. In ancient times, leprosy sufferers were often banished from society. Apparently the Lombards and Avars took a more tolerant approach, Rubini said, because this man, who died around age 50, was buried in the cemetery along with the other dead. […]

“The Avar society was very inflexible militarily, and in particular situations all are called to contribute to the cause of survival, healthy and sick,” [Foggia University anthropologist Mauro Rubini] said. “Probably this individual was really a leper warrior who died in combat to defend his people against the Byzantinian soldiers.”

Horse and rider buried togetherSo far 234 graves have been excavated. We can learn a great deal more we don’t know about Lombard and Avar cultures from their buried dead. There is evidence of successful battlefield surgery, for example. One skull has a 2-inch hole in it, probably made by a Byzantine mace, whose edges were cleaned and abraded until smooth. Regrowth of bone indicates that the surgery was successful. Another skull with a wedge-shaped dent, possibly made by a Byzantine battle-axe, also shows signs that the recipient of the blow survived it and lived for some time after.

Many of the warriors were found buried with their horses, a common practice among nomadic Asian peoples that must have continued to be practiced by the Avars in Italy.

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4 Comments »

Comment by edahstip
2011-04-10 12:03:21

I would be interested in finding out more about the attitudes of various cultures regarding leprosy. It isn’t something that’s turned up much in my reading, presumably because leprosy doesn’t spread very much. I think it is communicable but not in the same way as organisms that cause epidemics.

 
Comment by Alcuins heir
2011-04-10 20:00:13

Fascinating conclusion that he was accepted among his peers. The Edictum Rothari (Lombard Laws) stated:
176: On lepers. If anyone is afflicted with leprosy and the truth of the matter is recognized … and the leper is expelled from the district or from his house so that lives alone, he shall not have the right to alienate his property or give it to anyone…
180: …If it happens that after a girl has been betrothed she becomes leprous…, then her betrothed husband shall receive back his property and he shall not be required to take her to wife…

More early medieval posts, please!

 
Comment by livius drusus
2011-04-10 20:45:39

I would be interested in finding out more about the attitudes of various cultures regarding leprosy. It isn’t something that’s turned up much in my reading, presumably because leprosy doesn’t spread very much. I think it is communicable but not in the same way as organisms that cause epidemics.

It is communicable, but not easily and the vast majority of people are naturally immune. Yet, it was considered extremely contagious for thousands of years.

Societal attitudes towards leprosy is a deep and fascinating field of study. The unclean contagion stigma is still common in places where treatment is rare, so you can find many leper colonies in India and China, for example.

I recently saw a documentary on PBS about a Louisiana leprosarium at a former plantation. If you get Netflix, it’s available for instant viewing.

 
Comment by livius drusus
2011-04-10 20:49:24

176: On lepers. If anyone is afflicted with leprosy and the truth of the matter is recognized … and the leper is expelled from the district or from his house so that lives alone, he shall not have the right to alienate his property or give it to anyone…
180: …If it happens that after a girl has been betrothed she becomes leprous…, then her betrothed husband shall receive back his property and he shall not be required to take her to wife…

Intriguing. I wonder if the use of conditionals suggests that the leper, both property-owner and fiancee, weren’t always repudiated. Do you know if there are any other references in the Lombard Laws to the treatment of lepers?

More early medieval posts, please!

I’ll do my utmost. :hattip:

 
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