The Archaeology of Syphilis

Syphilis has caused immense suffering for thousands of years, but how do we know this? In this post, you will find the YouTube video tracing the archaeological trail of syphilis and a full video transcript (with relevant references and links).

YouTube Video

The Archaeology of Syphilis

YouTube Video Transcript

Here you will find the complete transcript of the video in the previous section. There are time stamps for every minute and hyperlinked references/citations.

Introduction

00:00:00] Al Capone, Frederic Nietzsche, Leo Tolstoy, James Joyce, and Vladimir Lenin. What do these people have in common? They all suffered from syphilis. As one of the most feared diseases in existence, syphilis has caused immense suffering for thousands of years. Shakespeare even called syphilis the “infinite malady,” referencing the deep and terrible history of the disease. Archaeologists study many infectious diseases that have caused epidemics over the years; syphilis is particularly interesting.

Why?

Because it leaves behind striking archaeological clues that tell us about the disease and its impact on society.

Hi, I’m Dr. Smiti Nathan, and I’m an archaeologist. In this video, we’re going to trace the archaeological trail of syphilis. So let’s get into it.

Background

[00:00:43] So before revealing syphilis archeological clues, let’s start off with what syphilis actually is. Syphilis is caused by a corkscrew-shaped bacterium called Treponema pallidum. Syphilis is primarily a sexually transmitted disease, but it can also be congenital, meaning it can be passed to a fetus during pregnancy, leading to a child being born with a syphilis infection.

Historically, syphilis has been nicknamed “the Great Pretender” because its symptoms mimic other infectious diseases, making it hard to diagnose and it’s sometimes confused with other infectious diseases.

There are three main stages of a syphilis infection. Primary, secondary, and tertiary.

And each stage has its own set of characteristic symptoms. The most notable symptoms of primary and secondary stage syphilis are sores in the mouth or genital area and a rash across the body, especially on the face, hands, and feet. Tertiary-stage syphilis, on the other hand, is notoriously painful and debilitating. It causes severe damage to the skin, brain, heart, and spinal column, which can lead to paralysis, tumor-like growths, dementia, organ failure, and, in many cases, death. Secondary and tertiary syphilis can infect the bone, especially the tibia, sternum, clavicles, and skull. The infection creates holes, making the bone look moth-eaten.

This usually leads to severe pain, as well as neurological symptoms like confusion, memory loss, and [00:02:00] personality changes. The lesions and marks left behind on bones are still visible hundreds, even thousands of years later, making it one of the best archaeological clues we have for syphilis.

This is a good time to mention that we will be talking about human remains in this video. While we won’t show any photographs or videos of actual human remains, we’ll show illustrations like the illustration you just saw before to better illustrate any concepts we’re trying to explain. Also, we’ll be talking about humans from across the world and time periods and ages who have been impacted by syphilis, including children. Okay, now back to the video.

Now, when it comes to bones and syphilis, there are characteristic patterns that are left behind on bones that leave us with information we likely wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Syphilis in Archaeology

[00:02:43]First off, bones are one of the best clues to help us figure out where syphilis came from. There is a lot of scientific debate surrounding the origins of syphilis. The leading hypothesis is that syphilis originated in the Americas and then spread to Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia via colonization in the 1400s and 1500s. Some scholars argue that it was already present in Europe prior to colonization, but others believe that historical descriptions of syphilis, like cases from before the 1490s, were actually leprosy.

Archaeologists have investigated this mystery by studying skeletal remains. Some of the earliest evidence of syphilis was recovered from a cave in Brazil. A team of researchers found the remains of a child who died about 9,400 years ago. Based on the marks on this child’s bones, they likely suffered from congenital syphilis. This study is important because it shows that syphilis has existed in the Americas for at least 10, 000 years.

In addition to bones, historical records can also provide clues about the origins of syphilis. The first recorded epidemic of syphilis in Europe occurred among soldiers in the [00:04:00] French army when Charles VIII invaded Naples in 1495.

Early outbreaks were extremely infectious, particularly deadly, and often associated with warfare. A Venetian doctor at this time even wrote about this illness:

“through sexual contact and ailment, which is new or at least unknown to previous doctors, the French sickness has worked its way in from the West to the spot. As I write, the entire body is so repulsive to look at. And the suffering is so great, especially at night, that the sickness is even more horrifying [00:04:30] than incurable leprosy or elephantiasis and it can be fatal.”

Benedetto

By the early 1500s, syphilis was already documented in dozens of medical treatises. As you already heard before, historical record clues showed us that 15th-century Europeans tend to blame the sudden emergence of the disease on their political enemies.

For example, it was known as the French sickness in England, Italy, and Germany, while it was the Polish disease in Russia, and the Christian disease in Turkey.

The modern name syphilis actually comes from an epic poem from an Italian scholar in the 16th century, but it didn’t become widely adopted until the 18th century.

Throughout the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, syphilis terrorized Europe, and we have clues about this from a few places. Archaeologists working at a cemetery associated with a monastic hospital in eastern Iceland have found evidence of an outbreak of syphilis between the years of 1496 and 1554.

This finding was significant because it shows how [00:05:30] transmissible syphilis is. Even somewhere as isolated as Iceland, people suffered from deadly epidemics.

In England, between the years of 1773 and 1776, almost 30 percent of people admitted to London’s hospitals were victims of sexually transmitted infections, particularly syphilis.

In Bologna, Italy, archaeologists studied skeletal remains from a late medieval period [00:06:00] Jewish cemetery and found about 400 individuals with the bone damage associated with tertiary stage syphilis. At this period in history, Jewish people were largely marginalized from mainstream European society, and researchers believe that this outbreak may have worsened prejudices against this community.

 From Europe, syphilis spread to Asia and Africa.

While sites across Asia and Africa are largely understudied in terms of the archaeology of infectious diseases, a team of researchers working near Seoul, [00:06:30] South Korea, identified a case of tertiary stage syphilis from skeletal remains dating to the mid-1800s. This study provides important clues about the spread of this disease across the world.

While syphilis was causing epidemics in Europe, Asia and Africa, it was still persisting in the Americas.

Archaeologists working at a 17th-century cemetery in Mexico City extracted three different strains of bacterium that causes syphilis, marking an important step in understanding the evolutionary history of this disease.

In the early 1900s syphilis posed a serious problem for military personnel during World War I. Prevention campaigns were specifically targeted to soldiers in the war. Sexually transmitted infections, including syphilis, were some of the leading reasons U. S. soldiers were medically discharged. The US government funneled money into anti-prostitution laws attempting to mitigate the spread of sexually transmitted infections. As the US Secretary of War proposed in 1918:

” 10 miles from any military camp, station, [00:07:30] fort, within which it shall be unlawful to engage in prostitution, or to aid or abet prostitution, or to procure or solicit for purposes of prostitution, or to keep or set up a house of ill fame, brothel, or boudy house, or to receive any person, purposes of lewdness.”

US Secretary of War

Historical Treatments

[00:07:30] While syphilis history is quite grim, luckily now it’s successfully treatable. Since the disease is caused by a bacterial infection, it can be effectively treated with antibiotics. However, before [00:08:00] the invention of penicillin in the 1940s, historical treatments of syphilis were actually quite dangerous and probably didn’t do too much to help.

A big part of syphilis archaeological trail is not just the disease itself, but how people try to treat the disease throughout history. In fact, certain historical treatments made the disease worse in most cases. 

In England from the 16th century through the early 19th century, there was one particular treatment that was widely accepted as commonplace. Typically patients would take compounds of this treatment orally or as an injection and treatment would last for weeks to months. Sometimes people would rub this treatment directly onto the infected areas of their bodies including their genitals. Unfortunately, this treatment turned out to be extremely toxic and cause severe side effects including tremors, muscle spasms, headaches, kidney damage, insomnia, exhaustion, and a host of other symptoms. This treatment was mercury.

Archaeologists can trace the use of mercury as a syphilis [00:09:00] treatment by studying one of the most reliable syphilis archaeological clues, bones, as well as another important archaeological clue.

When it comes to bones, studies across Europe have showed that mercury persists in bone long after an individual has died. This can be a useful way of understanding medical practices.

For the second clue, let’s go to Denmark. Here, archaeologists measured the amounts of mercury in the soil from a medieval cemetery and found that 40 percent of syphilis cases were treated with this toxic metal. They also found that the monks who cared for sick patients experienced mercury poisoning.

Similarly, at a medieval cemetery in Poland, archaeologists found that two women were lightly treated with mercury based on the high levels of it in their bones. So bones and soil work together to help us locate mercury in the archaeological record.

Historical Context & Social Significance

[00:09:19] Now the archaeology of syphilis is deeply interwoven with the history of classism, misogyny, and racism.

Throughout history, syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases have been heavily stigmatized. Especially since the 1800s, people who suffered from syphilis have been seen as unclean, especially those who are marginalized by society like women, people of color, and people of low economic status. Sexually transmitted diseases were also believed to only infect people who were immoral or led sinful lives. 

Unfortunately, the long-term effects of this can still be felt today. Scientists have shown that STI testing and treatment is still inaccessible to many communities throughout the world, especially those communities who are experiencing social and economic marginalization.

Throughout history, the spread of sexually transmitted infections was largely blamed on women, and we have some clear clues indicating this. As you can see by some of these posters from the early and mid 1900s, men were encouraged to stay away from loose women, who were perceived as the main source of syphilis. 

In fact, the association between women and sexually transmitted infections was the origin of the now outdated term, “venereal disease.” The root of venereal comes from [00:11:00] the name of the goddess of love herself, Venus. It was often said that a rendezvous with Venus came with the risk of coming down with this nasty infection. This, along with the use of mercury to treat syphilis, gave rise to a 19th-century saying “a night with Venus and a lifetime with Mercury.”

The historical blame of women has perpetuated stigmas and stereotypes that unfortunately persist to this day.

And you really can’t talk about syphilis without talking about one of the most egregious cases of medical abuse in history.

This abuse took place for 40 years between the years, 1932 and 1972 in Macon, Alabama. In what is now known as the U. S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee, researchers conducted an unethical study of the effects of untreated syphilis on a group of black men. The researchers did not receive informed consent from the people they were studying and did not offer them treatment even after penicillin was introduced in 1942.

In 1972, when the human rights violation known as the study came to light, the [00:12:00] researchers were rightfully criticized. They were reviewed by a panel which wrote that the study was “ethically unjustified” and that “results were disproportionately meager compared with known risks to human subjects involved.” The fact that these men were black and poor is significant. The researchers running the Tuskegee Study targeted people of color because they mistakenly believed that non-white people were more susceptible to sexually transmitted diseases.

In 1973, class action lawsuits were filed on behalf of the men who suffered from untreated syphilis and their families.

The Tuskegee study is routinely cited as the major impetus for the development of informed consent and its legacy can still be felt to this day.

Conclusion

[00:12:12] Now when it comes to effective treatments, since penicillin was introduced, overall cases have significantly dropped. However, over the past 20 years or so, cases have actually started to climb. According to the CDC, there were 176,713 reported cases of syphilis in the United States in 2021. That’s up from the 5,979 reported in 2000 and the 13, 774 reported in 2010.

Syphilis has had a long history that has left behind archeological clues of its origin, spread and severity. However, even with learning about its past and present, it doesn’t seem to be going away any time in the near future. So if you want to learn more about STI prevention, we’ll have some links in the description here so you can learn a bit more about how to keep yourself safe, how to find testing, and other important info.

Now if you’re curious about other archaeological clues in the record and what they can tell us, check out this video and playlist here.

Thanks for joining me in this video, and we’ll catch you in the next one. Bye.

Additional References

Check out this blog post by Anya Gruber: A Night with Venus, a Lifetime with Mercury: The History and Archaeology of Syphilis

Credits

Anya Gruber: Co-Producer, Researcher, Scriptwriter

Noor Hanania: Lead Video Editor

Smiti Nathan: Director, Co-Producer, Support Video Editor

Special thanks to Adam Netzer Zimmer, Leah Banks, Roshni Rao, and Jessica Owens-Young for consulting on specific aspects of this video. Also, thanks to  @gabchomp  and  @Katharine_Chen  for thumbnail feedback.


If you enjoyed this post, check out my channel and other videos.

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Smiti Nathan

I’m an archaeologist that travels around the world for both work and pleasure. I have a penchant for exploring ancient and modern places and the people, plants, and foods entangled in them. I write about archaeology, travel, and productivity.

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