500 Years Ago The Face of a Woman with Syphilis Recreated

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A woman who lived in Iceland about 500 years ago and suffered from severe syphilis was re-enacted

In the 16th century, a young woman lived with a face covered in sores that implied she had third-degree syphilis, a late-stage infection that can often lead to death.

The sexually transmitted infection was so severe that centuries later her skull remains riddled with bone lesions. Now, as part of a new study, researchers have created an approximate reconstruction of her face.

Little is known about the woman’s identity, but she was between 25 and 30 years old and her body was exhumed about a decade ago from a grave at the Skriðuklaustur monastery in Iceland.

Analysis of a 3D model of her skull provided by the Northern Heritage Network, an online archive of historical skeletons, revealed that in addition to syphilis, her skeleton had osteoarthritis and enamel hypoplasia, a dental defect caused by childhood malnutrition.

500 Years Ago The Face of a Woman with Syphilis Recreated 1
Before the 20th century discovery of penicillin, syphilis was a common bacterial infection in the 16th century. C: Cicero Moraes. Not much is known about her identity, but she was between 25 and 30 years old.

Cícero Moraes, a graphologist from Brazil and one of the study’s authors, was impressed by the lesions on the skull and decided to use this skull as the next study subject.

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“Third-degree syphilis was translated into reconstruction in a very effective way. It’s disturbing to see a face that looks like this, that has lost some of its structure and has severe scars that go down to the bones.”

Although the skull was missing the lower jaw, Moraes was able to use the 3D model as a guide, applying virtual skull and tissue markings to help create the curvature of the deceased woman’s face. He also examined other skulls of women of European descent who died at around the same age as the woman in the database and the contours of a virtual donor to create the final facial reconstruction.

“Having only the skull as a reference, it is very difficult to determine the cause of death. But syphilis had clearly caused this person a lot of problems.”

Unlike today, when antibiotics like penicillin can quickly eradicate the disease, people of European descent in the 16th century relied on herbal remedies from the holywood tree (Guaiacum sanctum) and mercury-containing skin ointments to alleviate symptoms. Sweat baths were also popular and were wrongly thought to help eliminate “syphilis poisons”, according to a 2021 article in the Journal of Military and Veterans’ Health.

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The latest “didactic study” involved swirls of lesions running along the woman’s right cheek and creeping up to an open slit on her forehead.

According to the study, the researchers chose to give the woman blonde hair to make her look more realistic so that the approach could “provide an example of the development of the disease in an individual and show how syphilis can become something very serious if not treated properly.

Source: Live Science. December 1, 2022.

 

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