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HISTORY

Columbus ‘didn’t bring syphilis to Europe’: study

Italian explorer Christopher Columbus is often accused of bringing syphilis back to Europe from the New World, but new research shows he may not be guilty as charged.

Columbus 'didn't bring syphilis to Europe': study
Syphilis may have existed in Europe more that 100 years before Columbus set sail. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A team from the Medical University of Vienna have identified what they believe to be cases of congenital syphilis – the version of the disease that is passed from mother to child – in skeletons found in Austria dating to 1320.

The find could provide the first solid proof that the disease existed in pre-Columbian Europe, according to research published in the Journal of Biological and Clinical Anthropology this month.

The 14th century skeletons were exhumed from the Domplatz (or Cathedral Square) in the lower Austrian city of St. Pölten and feature telltale signs of the disease in its congenital form.

The skeletons' teeth strongly suggest the presence of congenital syphilis through two defects.

Firstly, their incisors are widely spaced and contain distinctive central notches – a feature known as Hutchinson's teeth. Secondly, the skeletons' molars show globular growths of excess enamel – a condition known as Mulberry molars.

Taken together, the two features provide strong evidence that syphilis was present in Europe more than a century before it supposedly arrived from the New World.

Bone and enamel samples have now been taken and sent for analysis to see if microbiologists can confirm the likely presence of the disease in the skeletons found at St. Pölten.

““It's a great dilemma: at present there are no good examples of the disease although there is some evidence that it existed in ancient Egypt, but it's very difficult to diagnose,” Dr Francesco Galassi, an Italian academic who specializes in the history of diseases at the University of Zurich, told The Local.

“These morphological traits are not just specific to syphilis,” said Galassi adding that more proof would be needed before the presence of the disease could be confirmed.

The first documented outbreak of the disease occurred in Naples in 1495, which has led many to postulate that it was brought back from the Americas by sailors on Columbus' first voyage who had fallen for the allures of the natives.

The extent of syphilis in the Americas is confirmed pre-1492 by skeletal remains found at native American sites and it has long been thought the disease was unknown to pre-contact Europeans.  

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HISTORY

Italian archaeologists uncover slave room at Pompeii in ‘rare’ find

Pompeii archaeologists said Saturday they have unearthed the remains of a "slave room" in an exceptionally rare find at a Roman villa destroyed by Mount Vesuvius' eruption nearly 2,000 years ago.

Archaeologists in Pompeii who discovered a room which likely housed slaves. 
Archaeologists said the newly-discovered room in Pompeii likely housed slaves charged with maintaining chariots.  Photo: Archaeological Park of Pompeii press office.

The little room with three beds, a ceramic pot and a wooden chest was discovered during a dig at the Villa of Civita Giuliana, a suburban villa just a few hundred metres from the rest of the ancient city.

An almost intact ornate Roman chariot was discovered here at the start of this year, and archaeologists said Saturday that the room likely housed slaves charged with maintaining and prepping the chariot.

READ ALSO: 8 things you probably didn’t know about the Romans

“This is a window into the precarious reality of people who rarely appear in historical sources, written almost exclusively by men belonging to the elite,” said Pompeii’s director general Gabriel Zuchtriegel.

Photo: Archaeological Park of Pompeii press office.

The “unique testimony” into how “the weakest in the ancient society lived… is certainly one of the most exciting discoveries in my life as an archaeologist,” he said in a press release.

Pompeii was buried in ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, killing those who hadn’t managed to leave the city in time. They were either crushed by collapsing buildings or killed by thermal shock.

The 16-square metre (170-square feet) room was a cross between a bedroom and a storeroom: as well as three beds – one of which was child sized – there were eight amphorae, stashed in a corner.

Photo: Archaeological Park of Pompeii press office.

The wooden chest held metal and fabric objects that seem to be part of the harnesses of the chariot horses, and a chariot shaft was found resting on one of the beds.

The remains of three horses were found in a stable in a dig earlier this year.

“The room grants us a rare insight into the daily reality of slaves, thanks to the exceptional state of preservation of the room,” the Pompeii archaeological park said.

READ ALSO: Four civilizations in Italy that pre-date the Roman Empire

Image: Archaeological Park of Pompeii press office.

Experts had been able to make plaster casts of the beds and other objects in perishable materials which left their imprint in the cinerite — the rock made of volcanic ash — that covered them, it said.

The beds were made of several roughly worked wooden planks, which could be adjusted according to the height of the person who used them.

The webbed bases of the beds were made of ropes, covered by blankets.

While two were around 1.7 metres long, one measured just 1.4 metres, and may therefore have belonged to a child.

The archaeological park said the three slaves may have been a family.

Archaeologists found several personal objects under the beds, including amphorae for private things, ceramic jugs and what might be a chamber pot.

The room was lit by a small upper window, and there are no traces or wall decorations, just a mark believed to have been left by a lantern hung on a wall.

“This incredible new discovery at Pompeii demonstrates that today the archaeological site has become not only one of the most desirable visitor destinations in the world, but also a place where research is carried out and new and experimental technologies are employed,” said Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini.

“Thanks to this important new discovery, our knowledge of the daily life of ancient Pompeians has been enriched, particularly of that element of society about which little is known even today. Pompeii is a model of study that is unique in the world.”

READ ALSO: Why is Italy called Italy?

The excavation is part of a programme launched in 2017 aimed at fighting illegal activity in the area, including tunnel digging to reach artefacts that can be sold on illicit markets.

The Villa of Civita Giuliana had been the target of systematic looting for years. There was evidence some of the “archaeological heritage” in this so-called Slave Room had also been lost to looters, the park said.

Damage by grave robbers in the villa had been estimated so far at almost two million euros ($2.3 million), it added.

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