Illnesses of Prehistoric People on Polish LandsThe aim of this exhibition is to bring closer the issue of the state of our ancestors’ health to a contemporary visitor. Paleopathology is a field dealing with research of the condition of health of generations living in the distant past. Based on additional knowledge from other fields, ex. archaeology, anthropology, medicine, paleopathology reproduces the history of illnesses. It aims to establish the cradles – birthplaces of respective diseases, routes of their spreading, their reach, dynamics of their evolution and degree of their influence on the lives of whole societies and individual units.

The Naturalists' House
(HQ of The Archaeological Museum in Gdańsk)

Mariacka Street 25/26

The exhibited items which show the different strains of illnesses and changes, come from cemeteries in the early Stone Age, the Neolithic, from the period of Roman Empire influence and from the Middle Ages. Located on two storeys along with the Prehistoric exhibition in an archaeological context.


The department for the Stone Age and early Bronze Age contains the oldest archaeological artefacts, the A-E cabinets display bones bearing the signs of diseases that the people of the time suffered from.

In cabinet A, one can find exhibits illustrating some developmental strains. They appeared as a result of minor genetic disorders, which were not harmful to the correct functioning of the organism. As an example, all sizes and shapes of bone intrusions into the seams connecting skull bones, an opening in the sternum due to an incomplete growth of its parts. Exhibited are a variety of furrows on the first cervical vertebrae, in which important blood vessels supplying the brain can be found, which can also manifest in the form of short canals not completely bound with the bone, ex. the spinous process of a thoracic vertebrae, the atypical shape of a bone – the kneecap or part of a bone such as a wide spinous process of the cervical vertebrae. A change can be found here, an atavism, as it constitutes for a remnant of a phylogenetic development; it is the supratrochlear foramen of the arm which does not typically appear in human beings.

Changes are an important source of information allowing for keeping track of microevolutions over the span of time.

Transformations which happened as a result of more serious disruptions in the development of the organism, the so-called developmental disorders, which can cause persevering afflictions, are presented in cabinet B. As an example, a strongly bent nasal septum can be the source of frequent inflammations of sinuses. These are purulent inflammations, such as is the case in the presented example where the chronic inflamed state in the left sinus caused the formation of a fistula in the wall of the eye socket in order to allow the pus to be discharged. Another serious abnormality is the cleft palate. This condition affects speech significantly and can, at times, impede nourishing. Anomalies in fusing of bones – such as the ribs or vertebrae, where two or more bones form one uniform block, as well as lumbarization or sacralisation, where the spine becomes stiff in the lumbosacral segment, or a hip dislocation causes the so-called duck-walk – these limit the correct movement of ribs, the spine or limbs and lead to the deformation of the body. Incomplete symphysis of parts of the arches of the vertebrae or their complete absence leads to the formation of spina bifidia in the spinal cord, which can cause serious disorders in the functioning of the peripheral nervous system.

Cabinet C presents tumours – ones that are benign, which means that they do not endanger a person’s life. These are osteomata in various locations. Most commonly found on the skull, as well as chondroma – usually deforming the bones, as is the case with the presented example, where the tumour significantly deformed the bones of the metacarpus. The femur here is flat and bent – most probably due to suffering of rickets in childhood.

Cabinet D contains inflammation changes – specific and non-specific. An example of a specific infectious disease is tuberculosis, which can only be caused by a specific factor that is mycobacterium tuberculosis. It is common for vertebrae to be damaged in lung tuberculosis, resulting in a hump. Besides the damaged vertebrae, a skull with a trepanation hole is presented. The trepanation was performed in belief that the illness would “leave” through the hole. A severely ill patient, however, would not survive this procedure. Other exhibits are the traces of non-specific inflammation processes, which means they could have been caused by factors like bacteria, viruses or protozoans. Most commonly these include tooth abscesses and decay changes, however, there is no lack of changes caused by abscess inflammations of other bones. A common illness was an infection caused by degeneration and deformation of joints. A variety of degrees of deformities, mainly of the joints, are represented by numerous exhibits. These changes, depending on the expanse and stage of development, could limit or completely inhibit movement.

Cabinet E shows plentiful examples of various injuries. Among them are cases of skull traumas caused by a sharp or blunt object. Equally common are injuries to the forearms, especially the ulna. These are the so-called parrying breaks. The forearm plays the role of a shield when parrying a hit and usually breaking. There are also serious cases of femur breakage. Difficult to set, they usually healed badly, which caused the limb to shorten. Compression breaks were less common, ex. the bones in the shin and foot, which usually happen when falling from a significant height. A person’s state after these types of injuries definitely made movement difficult.



The ROMAN EMPIRE INFLUENCE PERIOD presents a sparse collection of paleopathologic exhibits. They occupy cabinet A. One of them is a tooth abscess, an extensive periostits, which could have caused other various illnesses, as well as a serious case of a congenital disorder, the so-called “multiple growths”. These cause significant deformations of many bones, which excludes independence of the afflicted, who usually dies at a young age.

In the subsequent part, the archaeological exhibition refers to the MIDDLE AGES and is accompanied by numerous demonstrations of paleopathology. Cabinet A contains exhibits similar to ones displayed on the first floor, such as various aortal grooves on the first cervical vertebrae, openings in the sternum, the supratrochlear foramen of the arm or a sutural bone. Besides this, there are examples of very narrow nasal bones, alternating shapes of the manubrium and the talar shelf (of the heel), not merged or defectively merged shoulder blade bone, or an atypical shape of the jaw or rib.

Developmental disorders, as on the first floor, can be viewed in cabinet C. This includes an example of craniosynostosis (a premature fusion of fibrous sutures in a skull). Various malformations of the calvarium can appear, dependent on the extensiveness of the process. The skull can take on a conical or navicular shape. Some of them can cause a disturbance to the sense of smell and sight. Less dramatic disorders were caused by torticollis (wry neck) which caused asymmetry in the skull. Whereas the cervical rib, which put pressure on the nerves and blood vessels, could cause serious disturbances in the functioning of, ex. the entire upper limb. Limb underdevelopment led to reaching a significantly shorter height. Disturbance in the correct development of the epiphyseal plate (femur and shinbone), caused the disturbances in the functioning of the knee joints (Pyle’s syndrome). A more serious illness is the disorder of the development of the metaphyseal of the humerus and the base of the skull, which is represented here by a new-born’s bone. A relatively rare and benign disorder is the non-ossification of parts of the epiphysis of the humerus. However, various disorders of the spine were identified often, which are similar to ones presented on the first floor, with the exception of the open neural canal in the sacrum.

Cabinet D displays a skeleton with extensive changes caused by leprosy, which is a disease accompanied by an inflammation caused by the leprosy bacteria. This chronic disease, brought to Poland by Crusaders, caused vast destruction in the skeleton. Further specific illnesses are exhibited in cabinet E. Changes caused by syphilis, which similarly to leprosy, destroys almost the entire skeleton. There are also a lot of cases of tuberculosis which, besides degrading the body of the vertebrae, also attacks joints, especially the hip and knee. The other exhibits display non-specific inflammations on the skull. These are changes on the malar bones, the jaw or the occipital bone. The latter could have been caused by trachoma. There are a lot of tooth abscess and decay changes. There is also an example of periodontitis and traces of encysted cysts.

Cabinet F shows exhibits illustrating a whole plethora of degeneration – malformation changes which appear both within the spine as well as in joints. Disorders caused by deficiencies of, ex. iron, can also be seen. The visible porous roof of the eye socket usually accompanies anaemia, caused by malaria which appeared in some regions of Poland. Flattened vertebrae can indicate insufficient nutrition – famine – or the congenital Sheuermann’s disease. Whereas extensive changes, occurring in almost the entire skeleton, are caused by hormonal imbalances (Morgani’s syndrome).

Injuries are exhibited in cabinet G. These include intentional distortion of the skull – practiced by numerous societies, including the past Slavs – as well as trepanation the history of which is as interesting as the history of intentional head distorting. Skull and other bone injuries are more or less extensive and appear on nearly all the bones. The cabinet also possesses exhibits displaying the atrophy of the alveolar process, where the ulna meets the humerus of an unknown aetiology, ribs and collar bones with extra joint surfaces and flattened edges which indicate an incorrect body posture.

Exhibits of tumours are displayed in cabinet H and I. Cabinet H contains a skeleton with extensive changes occurring in lung cancer, and cabinet I, for the most part, contains benign tumours, such as: osteoma, angioma, a jawbone tumour – most probably caused by a cyst of the maxillary sinus, a defect in a child’s pelvis of unknown origin, solitary growths and osteoid osteoma. There is also a dramatic, similarly to cabinet H, exhibit: a skull and a fragment of a pelvic bone with extensive changes caused by a malignant tumour.

The exhibition is further enhanced by drawings which help one get oriented in the history of illnesses and their occurrences all over the world throughout centuries. One can assume from the exhibition that the frequency of developmental and infectious changes, especially specific ones, had risen over the centuries and that the illnesses became increasingly more diverse. This means that new diseases appeared, especially infectious ones, as well as illnesses stemming from deficiencies (anaemia, rickets). More information can be gathered from the book “Paleopathology”.

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