The Archaeology of Pandemics

In the United States, anthropology is a four-field discipline including cultural anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, and physical anthropology. The broad-based education that American anthropologists receive ensures that the discipline pays attention to contemporary cultural diversity and complexity, cultural systems in the past, the symbol systems of diverse languages, and the biology of being human. This interaction of culture and biology is an inherent part of the discipline, and we see this in the ways that archaeologists study pandemics in the past. Through studying material remains archaeologists try to understand past pandemics to help us analyze, treat, and prevent contemporary and future pandemics, like COVID 19.

Archaeologists correlate the rise of infectious disease with the agricultural revolution (the Neolithic) and the development of towns and cities. With agriculture, people started living in settlements with greater density in close proximity to the new animal domesticates, allowing for viruses to jump from animals to humans and to spread amongst dense human populations. As an ancient global economy developed (proto-globalization) during the Bronze Age, long distance trade between cities enabled the movement of disease on a broader scale. These variables of animal-human interaction, population density, and globalization are all crucial in today’s COVID 19 pandemic.

To study epidemics and disease in the past, archaeologists analyze skeletal remains, burial sites such as mass graves, and settlement layouts. Skeletal remains may have morphological evidence for disease – such as the above photo of a skull that has been deformed by syphilis or the vertebrae affected by tuberculosis. (see Slides 2 and 3) However, not all disease affects the skeleton (for example, bubonic plague, HIV, COVID 19 do not), so recent advances in DNA analysis have been invaluable in giving archaeologists new information on past disease.

Archaeologists also use evidence from archaeological sites – including ecofacts, features, artifacts, and biofacts – to analyze pandemics and to understand strategies people have used in the past to treat and combat pandemics. In southern Africa archaeologists have excavated sites showing that social distancing in the building and moving of settlements and burning settlements and corpses to disinfect and eradicate disease have been used to combat epidemics. These are some of the same techniques that we are using today to prevent the spread of COVID 19.

Evidence from mass burials can tell us a great deal about disease. For example, the bubonic plague decimated England in 1348-49, wiping out as much as half of England’s population in a mere 18 months. In 2020 archaeologists unearthed a mass burial site in Lincolnshire, England, the first mass grave site of plague victims in a rural setting (most of the graves we have are in London). Archaeologist Hugh Wilmott found that even as people were dying en masse, respect for the dead was important. The burials were deliberate and the bodies were carefully wrapped in shrouds. (See Slide 4) Burials can also show archaeologists what part of the population is most affected by disease (for example, the 1918 influenza killed healthy young adults, while the current pandemic is more likely to kill elderly people and black and Latino Americans).

Archaeologists also are using modern advancements in science to better understand disease. Most notably, there have been great strides made in retrieving ancient DNA from skeletal material and teeth. In 2011 the first entire genome of an ancient pathogen (that of the plague) was reconstructed. Studying ancient genomes allows archaeologists to trace the evolutionary history of viruses, the origin of viruses, and the relation of pandemics to the migration of peoples. We are finding that the origin of many of these viruses is earlier than we had originally thought (in smallpox, the plague, and measles for example), while some (tuberculosis) originated later.

While some think of archaeology as a science that explores arcane cultures in the past, the archaeology of disease and epidemics is one way that archaeology contributes to our understanding of contemporary cultural and social issues.

By Dr. Jill Schennum