Good Health & Anglo-Saxons…And A Little Lead Poisoning

So it turns out that Anglo-Saxons were actually quite healthy, comparatively. There was more infectious disease than in the Roman period, but anaemia, dental, and joint disease all decreased, and were lower than in the medieval period that followed. Stature was also higher than in either the Roman or Medieval period, and I believe life span was also longer, though I’ll have to check on that. All of this at least suggests access to a better diet – it has been suggested that good dental health at Wearmouth and Jarrow was due to the large amount of seafood (containing fluoride) in their diet – and possibly better living conditions.

The data is from Health and Disease in Britain: From Prehistory to the Present Day, by Margaret Cox and Charlotte Roberts. The Anglo-Saxon section is based on an analysis of 7,122 burials from mostly the early Anglo-Saxon period, so assuming that their numbers are accurate, and allowing for how spotty archaeological information is in general, their findings are actually quite statistically significant.

So much for the ‘Dark Ages.’

On the other hand, there was so much lead at Wearmouth & Jarrow from both the construction and industry that went on at the sites, that skeletons recovered from them contained between 87 and 3083 (!!!) parts per million of lead. Compare this to the normal range of 220ppm. That’s 14 times the normal concentration! To be fair, some of the lead could have leached into the samples from the soil, but Calvin Wells, who did most of the original paleopathology, doesn’t seem to think so (see Roberts & Cox, 175).

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