What the bones say


What the bones say

Bone material discovered in cemeteries clearly presents knowledge about the state of health and hygiene of studied populations. The skeleton is a peculiar diary of human life. It records long-term activities related to nutrition, hygiene, living conditions, diseases, injuries and work.

A good example is the skeleton discovered during excavations in the church of St James in Gdańsk. Based on archaeological and historical research, it is known that the remains were of Gotthilf Bergemann, who died at the age of 74 in 1802 in Gdańsk. He was the tenant of the inn located in the Skippers Guild House. Anthropological research has allowed to reconstruct the health and living conditions of this man.

From the list of lesions on the bones, it can be seen that Gotthilf Bergemann’s life was not easy. He worked hard, struggling with major health problems, including caries, inflammation of the mouth, respiratory tract, and joint aches, especially of the spine and right foot. At the end of his life, he also suffered from limited breathing and mobility, and to make matters worse, he limped.

A CT scan of the skull revealed something else: a cancerous tumor in the right frontal sinus. However, it turned out that it was a benign tumor which did not have a major impact on the life of the deceased. Radiological examination of the ribs, instead, showed thinning of the bone structure with a discreet sclerotic coating characteristic of gumma-induced changes (a symptom of syphilis). Similar lesions occurred on the spinous processes of the vertebrae. At that time, infection with Treponema pallidum, i.e. syphilis, in a port city was not unusual.



• Porous hypertrophy of the orbital vaults (cribra orbitalia). The occurrence of this lesion is associated with nutritional deficiencies (mainly iron in the diet) and generally with poor living conditions, such as poor hygiene, parasite infections, infections caused e.g. by contaminated water.

• Severely curved nasal septum. Such a change may cause chronic purulent inflammation of the frontal or maxillary sinus, followed by eyeball inflammation.

• Degenerative changes within the sternoclavicular joints probably formed as a result of excessive work of the upper limbs.

• Degenerative changes of the thoracic vertebrae indicate ankylosing spondylitis, probably as a result of various types of damage, e.g. due to excessive load.

• Ligament ossification within the right sacroiliac joint.

• Degenerative changes in the right foot caused pain, especially from the medial side due to pressure on the extra navicular bone.

• Benign tumor in right frontal sinus.

• Intravital lack of teeth. Probably the teeth were removed in lifetime or fell out, e.g. due to caries and periodontal inflammation.

• Slight changes caused by syphilis (so-called gummas) on the surface of the rib.

• Inflammatory changes on the internal surface of ribs and sternum and ossification of the rib cartilage may have formed as a result of pleurisy caused by chronic respiratory system disease.

• Degenerative changes in the left hip joint.

• Ossification of ligaments of the patella within both knee joints.

• Male, 74-year old. The age of the deceased indicates adapting to living conditions, and as one can see this person has lived to old age.

• Body height: 171.5 cm (according to the Breitinger method). It informs about the health and social state as well as living conditions of the deceased (the average body height of Gdańsk inhabitants in the post-medieval period was 170 cm).


Edited by: Dr Aleksandra Pudło, Archaeological Museum in Gdańsk, Dr hab. Adam Szarszewski, Department of History and Philosophy of Medical Sciences, Medical University of Gdańsk, Dr hab. Edyta Szurowska, Department of Radiology, Medical University of Gdańsk, Dr hab. Tomasz Mazurek and doctor Maciej Zrodowski, Chair and Clinic of Orthopedics and Traumatology of the Locomotor System, Medical University of Gdańsk.


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