An Israeli archaeologist has found what he says are the oldest remains of a leprosy victim to be uncovered in the Middle East, buried in a biblical valley of child sacrifice whose name later became a synonym for Hell.
Shimon Gibson of Jerusalem’s Albright Institute of Archaeological Research discovered the 2,000 year old remains of a man in a niche in a family burial cave in the city’s Hinnom Valley, or Gehenna, where ancient peoples burned children alive as offerings to the pagan god Molech.
Gibson said that until now the oldest archaeological findings of leprosy, known in medical terms as Hansen’s Disease, were from the Byzantine period, around the fifth century A.D
“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,” he said. “It’s very exciting.”
Gibson said that the Hebrew word ‘Shara’ mentioned in the Bible could be translated to mean not only leprosy but also other forms of skin ailments, but the Jerusalem discovery confirms beyond doubt that people in the time of Jesus did suffer from Hansen’s Disease.
Although he made the discovery three years ago, he said he held off from publicising the find until exhaustive examination of the bones, DNA and fibres in the skeleton’s shroud were complete.
“We didn’t want to make a spectacular announcement and then find we hadn’t done our homework,” he told The Associated Press.
Orit Shamir, a textiles expert at the Israel Antiquities Authority, said the leper’s linen shroud was also unique.
“This is the first time we have found a shroud of that age in the Jerusalem area,” she said, adding that the man’s clothing indicated his social status.
“He was from the upper level of society,” she said.
Gibson said that although leprosy weakened the man’s immune system, it was tuberculosis that actually killed him.
He said that contrary to the local custom at the time of burying a corpse and then later re-interring the bones, the leper was left untouched in his niche, away from the bones of his relatives.
“People were very frightened of leprosy,” he said. “They were afraid of being contaminated.”
That fear may have led to the preservation of the shroud, Gibson said, keeping the cloth in its niche above the cave floor away from the rotting effects of rainwater.
“Such things have previously only been found in arid or semi-arid areas such as the Jordan Valley or Egypt.”