Portsmouth Museums' Saxon Skeletons Enlisted To Help Find Cure For TB

By 24 Hour Museum Staff | 07 February 2008
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a photograph of a human skull and other bones laid out on a table

A Saxon Skeleton (not the one being used in the TB research) held by Portsmouth Museums. © Portsmouth City Council

Saxon age skeletons in Portsmouth's Museums collection could potentially pave the way for the development of new drugs to tackle the scourge of tuberculosis (TB) according to new research.

Work is to be carried out on two of the skeletons in the museums collection by experts from Durham and Manchester universities who are taking samples for DNA testing from two Saxon skeletons as part of a research project.

Called 'Biomolecular archaeology of tuberculosis in Britain and Europe' the project aims to improve modern knowledge of the disease and will share research with Arizona State University to trace the spread of TB across the Old Worlds in Europe and the New World in America.

Jennifer Macey, Collections Assistant, said the city council was delighted to be helping in the quest to discover more about TB and its spread:

"The potential benefits of the research will be a greater understanding of the evolution of TB in Britain and Europe,” said Jennifer, “possibly being able to identify whether particular strains of TB have always occurred in certain regions or whether this is due to modern factors.

“This could help epidemiologists understand why there is an increase of TB in particular regions of Europe today and why it is resistant to forms of antibiotics.”

a photograph of a human skull and other bones laid out on a table

© Portsmouth City Council

The city council holds around 157 skeletons in its collection together with a number of cremations, held in the museum store in Hilsea.

Most of the human remains date from the Bronze Age (c.2, 500 - 800 BC) and Saxon times (AD c.450 - 1066) and have been excavated during rescue archaeology – for example where they would have been destroyed during the building of a new road.

The two skeletons that will be studied were excavated by the Ministry of Works from Saxon cemeteries at Snell's Corner and Southwick Crossroads during the 1940s and 50s, and from a Portsmouth Museum Service excavation at the Bevis Grave Saxon Cemetery in 1974 - 76.

Two samples of bone will be removed from each skeleton - one of which had TB of the spine and the other was disease free. The disease-free sample will be used as the control.

Professor Charlotte Roberts from Durham University and Professor Terry Brown from Manchester University are leading the research, which is being funded by the Natural Environmental Research Council.

Portsmouth Museum are keen to stress that the remains will be treated respectfully throughout the process to comply with DCMS guidelines and standards.

"The Museum and Records Service feels privileged to be involved in this important work,” added Jennifer, “which will contribute to cutting edge scientific research and potentially the development of new drugs to combat TB."

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