Living conditions and hygiene of old Gdańsk inhabitants based on archaeological studies
A good indicator of living conditions and the degree of hygiene of old populations is the presence of changes on the skeleton.
Cribra orbitalia is a very clear change on the skull, which manifests itself in the form of perforation of the orbital vault. It is strongly associated with the socioeconomic standard of living of studied population – a larger percentage of cribra orbitalia occurs in poorer populations. Most often it results from a deficiency of some elements in the diet, mainly iron, but also magnesium and folic acid, which in consequence could lead to anemia. Other reasons for this change may be bad cultural habits, parasite infections, as well as infections caused by, for example, contaminated water, periostitis, or osteoporosis.
On skeletons of medieval Gdańsk inhabitants, cribra orbitalia occurred in both children and adults. In the Middle Ages, a change was noted in 50% of children, and in the post-medieval period (18th century) in almost 80% (!). However, amongst the adults in the Middle Ages, the percentage of this change turned out to be low and did not exceed 10%, but it increased three times already in the post-medieval period!
The level of living conditions and hygiene in medieval Gdańsk seems to have been quite good. A varied diet, resulting from the city’s location on the sea and the river, helped Gdańsk inhabitants to keep their good condition. Deterioration of living conditions in post-medieval Gdańsk could have been related to, amongst others, increased number of inhabitants and a growing amount of waste, and yet limited access to various types of food.
Caries is one of the most serious changes in the masticatory apparatus. It contributes to the intravital loss of teeth and inflammation of the periodontal tissues, including the formation of bone fistulae. There are many causes of caries, including type of diet and degree of personal hygiene.
In medieval Gdańsk inhabitants, the percentage of teeth affected by caries was low: 6.5%. On the one hand, this is linked to intense chewing of hard and uncleaned food, causing a strong abrasion of crowns. On the other hand, the Gdańsk inhabitants were favoured by a rich sea coast diet. It has been proven that a higher intake of fish and raw vegetables (and lower of carbohydrates) reduces the incidence of caries.
Since the late Middle Ages, the percentage of teeth affected by caries has gradually increased. In the 18th century it was three times larger and amounted to 17%. Interestingly, the fraquency of intravital loss of teeth, amongst others due to caries, increased slightly: from 11% to 14%.
• Porotic changes of both orbital vaults (cribra orbitalia) with the highest degree of expression; male, 25-35 years old.
• Fragment of the orbital vault with strongly expressed perforation (cribra orbitalia); adult individual.
• Maxilla with intravital loss of first molar and abscess of second molar; adult individual.
• Right mandibular corpus with intravital loss of molars and bone fistula of second premolar.
• Left fragment of the mandibular corpus with first molar damaged by caries and bone fistulae; on the corpus additional bone layers are visible resulting from extensive inflammatory process.
Edited by Dr Aleksandra Pudło, anthropologist, photo by Joanna Szmit, Archaeological Museum in Gdańsk