Although it was three years ago since Shimon Gibson, an Israeli archaeologist, discovered the 2,000-year-old remains of a man in the Middle East, DNA tests now confirm that the man suffered from leprosy. This discovery breaks the previous record of the oldest archaeological findings of leprosy. Previously, the oldest findings of leprosy only dated to the fifth century A.D., around the Byzantine period.
"As this is from the first century A.D., it makes it the first known example of Hansen's Disease in the entire Middle East," Gibson said. "It's very exciting."
The remains were found in Jerusalem's Hinnon Vally, which has a Hebrew name meaning Hell, called Gehenna. The name came from the ritual that occurred in the valley, where pagans in the early A.D. centuries would burn children alive as offerings to the pagan god Molech. Gibson, from the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, found the bodily remains on a trip leading students to a burial site in the mentioned valley. Some students pointed out broken shards from a sarcophagus.
"These caught my eye, because they appeared to point to grave theft; I decided to go inside the cave, and take a look," Gibson says. "There was a burial hole inside the cave; when I looked inside it, I couldn't believe what I saw. Lying on the ground, there were some remains of cloth. I grasped immediately that this was a shroud; and if it turned out that the shroud was from the Second Temple period, which is the age of burial caves in the region, then this would be the first time that a 2,000-year-old shroud has been discovered around Jerusalem."
Leprosy, also known in medical terms as Hansen's Disease, was one of the diseases the Bible mentions Jesus curing. Leprosy is caused by a bacillus called Mycobacterium leprae, which attacks nerve ends, if left untreated could lead to deformity, paralysis, and blindness.
Gibson also commented that the Hebrew word "Shara" mentioned in the Bible could mean other skin diseases besides leprosy.
Further tests of the remains since its discovery have led Gibson to conclude that leprosy victim actually died of tuberculosis and leprosy only weakend his immune system.
When linen samples were sent to Orit Shamir, a textiles expert at the Israel Antiquities Authority, for restoration and testing, Shamir said that the leper "was from the upper level of society" as his regular and electronic microscope examinations confirmed.
Gibson added, "The grave's location supports this hypothesis. The grave is located on the lower side of Mount Zion, where Jerusalem's aristocratic elite of the time dwelled."
Researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Faculty of Medicine performed tests on the hair samples of the leper and because the hair did not contain any indication of lice, they said that the leper was probably wealthy from the looks of his hygiene.
Centuries later the remains associated with the leper have been sent to numerious agencies for testing, but at the time of the body's death, it was buried isolated from other familial corpses.
"People were very frightened of leprosy," Gibson said. "They were afraid of being contaminated."