Book Review

(First published in 1985 in volume 1, pp. 76-77, of the third series of The Bradford Antiquary, the journal of the Bradford Historical and Antiquarian Society.)

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The Archaeology of Disease

Keith Manchester, M.B., B.S. B.Sc, F.R.A.I.. University of Bradford, 1983, £12.

In many of us there is another person trying to get out, so that hobbies and pastimes reveal a side to our nature which is not usually on display to the general public. A celebrated astronomer entertains us on the xylophone; a king mends clocks, and a bishop finds a second home in the driver's cab of a locomotive. Some, like Keith Manchester, take a busman's holiday and pursue a hobby which is an extension of their job or profession: but at once there is a contradiction, because Dr. Manchester has at least one other serious hobby which has nothing whatever to do with medicine.

These secondary occupations often have their origins in chance meetings. In Dr. Manchester's case his interest in archaeology was triggered off at the age of twelve when he saw excavations going on at a Romano-British site in Leicestershire. His medical career brought him from London to a practice in Bradford, and a continuing interest in local history took him, in the 1960s, to Sandal Castle, near Wakefield, where he was invited to examine the skeletons of nine Royalist soldiers. He traces his obsession with palaeopathology the history of diseases - to 'these unwitting volunteers', an encounter which eventually led to his becoming one of a very small group of specialists carrying out research into the afflictions of early man.

Dr. Manchester is now Visiting Lecturer in Palaeopathology at Bradford University, where he is in charge of a programme of research which has just begun, with the object of determining from skeletal evidence the prevalence and extent of leprosy in Britain. It is hoped that this three-year study will go some way to explaining why leprosy, which was introduced into this country by the Romans, became a significant disease and then declined throughout late medieval Europe. The mutilated leper, ostracized by society, was a familiar figure in medieval Britain and towards the end of the fifteenth century there were some 270 hospitals offering care and seclusion, but little in the way of treatment.

This preamble brings us to the book, which includes leprosy under 'Infectious Diseases' (p.4l), and in accordance with the aim expressed in the Preface the search is always for 'diseases discovered in the human remains of antiquity', in this case four skulls from the second century B.C. found in an Egyptian oasis. This is practical palaeopathology - applying the principles of pathology to the afflictions of early man. Literary evidence is not ignored, but it takes second place to what dry bones have to tell.

Apart from limited personal experience a layman's knowledge of diseases comes mainly from reports or pictures, and Dr. Manchester's book extends this process, taking us much nearer the source of things and so to a better understanding of suffering. References throughout are to international authorities and this, together with an impressive bibliography indicates the scope of the research. This is obviously not everybody's bedside book, but once we have become familiar with the polysyllabic medical terms, with the help of the glossary, there is nothing much to fear.

The first part sets the scene, with chapters on population; the distribution of diseases; the impact of epidemics, plagues and famines, and end~ with the nature of the evidence on which current research is based. We are on common ground here and it is good to have some of our doubts resolved and our suspicions confirmed. Thus, 'The popular picture of a world inhabited by small people is manifestly untrue'. A small door in an ancient building should not lead us to believe that all medieval men were midgets. And we say 'Hear, hear' to the suggestion that women may have been the underfed, overworked drudges of antiquity, harassed by frequent pregnancies and all the cares of child-bearing. Unfortunately for archaeologists many ailments do not affect bones, so science has to make the best use it can of representations of disease and deformity in literature and art. Most of us are familiar with Cromwell's 'warts and everything' (not 'all', please), and with George III's porphyria, but not perhaps with the Egyptian God Ptha in the form of an achondroplastic dwarf.

Part two is a small encyclopaedia of diseases, so curiosity may well be our guide. Trepanning has long held a morbid fascination for me, although thoughts of the operation send shudders down my spine. We must not however, follow the example of Jerome K. Jerome's 'J', as he sat thumbing through a medical book in the British Museum, and become so engrossed that we imagine we were born with idiopathic hyperstasis, have suffered all our life from hypervitaminosis and are certain finally to fall a prey to osteochondritis dissecans. If we get tired of long words we can turn to the 34 Figures and 51 Plates, many of the latter being photographs in the Bradford University Collection.

But Dr. Manchester obviously did not intend to provide a mere diversion. He has lectured to the Society on this subject and I hope that members will refresh their memories and extend their knowledge by reading his book, which is the result of first-hand experience, long study and careful preparation. This review comes some time after the book's successful launching and we understand that it is already in considerable demand both at home and overseas. We wish it continued success.


© 1985, J.F. and The Bradford Antiquary