The health state of old Gdańsk inhabitants
Among the numerous morphological structure disorders observed on the bones, those that determine the health state of the studied population are distinguished. These changes are caused by, amongst others, rheumatic, infectious, cancerous, metabolic and hormonal diseases as well as work-related injuries and loads. They occur as a result of the body’s response to genetic equipment and environmental conditions.
There are many testimonies of various diseases from post-medieval Gdańsk. One can even hypothesise that the more urbanised the city, the more various diseases are observed within the inhabitants. A port city, open, developing and rich, which attracted new people looking for a better life, also posed many different threats, such as epidemics.
The first epidemic of plague in Gdańsk, called the ‘black death’, was recorded already in the mid-14th century. Then the plague returned every few or several dozen years, until 1709. The largest epidemics killed up to 40% of the inhabitants of Gdańsk! Death came so quickly that the dead were buried within the city. This is evidenced by an ossuary with plague victims discovered in the area of the former Dominican monastery.
Syphilis was another epidemic which occurred quite often in the port city. The advanced stages of this disease are clearly perceptible on the adults’ bones. But the most dramatic course is observed on bones of children in which the lesions indicate congenital syphilis.
Life in the old days was associated with frequent participation in fights and battles. Post-traumatic lesions of head and limbs are often found in bone material. Interestingly, they are usually healed injuries, and therefore the wounded were looked after with care. For example, to remove intracranial hematoma (resulting from a blow), skull trepanation was performed.
A densely populated city, contact with animals, waste accumulation, limited health care – all this affected the occurrence of inflammatory changes. Most often, bone material has traces of periosteal inflammatory reactions and purulent bone infections. They mainly concerned long bones, especially the lower leg, and often had a very dramatic image.
The average inhabitant of old Gdańsk had to work really hard. On skeletons, degenerative changes occur the most, which result from excessive and incorrect load, as well as from ageing, possibly due to congenital defects, developmental disorders or injuries.
The health condition of old Gdańsk inhabitants, despite the high number of diseases, was not bad. This is evidenced by the increasing life span and height of the inhabitants of Gdańsk.
• Advanced inflammatory changes on the tibia, characteristic of syphilis; adult individual.
• Frontal bone with numerous round defects (caries sicca) characteristic of syphilis; individual died in adolescence.
• Healed injury of frontal bone and left parietal bone, probably hit with a sharp weapon; adult individual.
• Healed injury of femur with splinters dislocation and bone shortening; adult individual.
• Left tibia of an adult individual, chronic osteomyelitis with thickening of the bone outline; adult individual.
• Right humerus with advanced inflammatory lesions; adult individual.
• Block of two thoracic vertebrae; adult individual.
• Right humerus with damaged and deformed articular surface of the head; adult individual.
Edited by Dr Aleksandra Pudło, anthropologist, photo by Joanna Szmit, Archaeological Museum in Gdańsk