The Leper's Tomb

Valley of Hinnom 31 46 05.39N
35 13 54.19E
There is - or was - an old Crusader ruin near this spot which I believe to be Aceldama, where lepers were dumped. The monastery of Aceldama is a little further down the valley.

The good old King James Version of the Bible is full of warnings about leprosy: lepers were obliged to cry "Unclean! Unclean!" wherever they went, thus giving ordinary people a chance to avoid the contamination of their presence, and complicated rituals were ordained for anyone who might be suspected of having it or those few lucky ones who might reasonably hope to be declared free of the disease.

More modern versions of the Bible, however, have had rather less to say on the subject and my favourite, the New International Version, coyly footnotes, "The Hebrew word was used for various diseases affecting the skin - not necessarily leprosy."

It seems, however, that the translators were being a little too cautious. Tomb robbers in Jerusalem have been responsible for overturning this modern wisdom.

Ever since archaeologists discovered the ossuary of Caiaphas in a ruined tomb in the Valley of Hinnom, the local Arabs have been conducting desultory and entirely illegal prospecting expeditions of their own, hoping to make some comparable find that will unlock vast wealth for the lucky discoverer. Unfortunately - or, perhaps, fortunately - your average Silwan villager's idea of vast wealth can be summed up in one word: gold. Thus, when persons unknown discovered a hidden tomb chamber, they failed the recognise the real treasure that it contained.

The tomb was one of the many that dot the slopes of the Valley of Hinnom and had been entered many times before. On this occasion, however, someone with sharp eyes noticed a crack in the wall and recognised it as tomb sealing.

During the 1st century AD the customary form of tomb was a chamber hewn in the rock, off which coffin-sized tunnels called kokhim were cut. The deceased was shoved into one of these tunnels and left for a year or so, by which time nothing remained except bones. The relatives returned, gathered up the bones and placed them in a small stone box (an ossuary), leaving the tunnel free for the next family member to die.

In this tomb, however, someone had been placed in one of these tunnels and its entrance sealed with rock and plaster. For some reason, however, the relatives had not returned to complete the ritual. When the tomb robbers chipped away the broken plaster and levered out the rock, all they could see inside the tunnel was a mass of brown fibres that were so fragile they virtually disintegrated at a touch. Disgusted, the robbers went off in search of treasure elsewhere.

Fortunately someone noticed their depredations and reported the matter to the Israeli authorities, who despatched a team of proper archaeologists to investigate. To them the mass of fibres was priceless, because it turned out to be a cloth-wrapped body, partially mummified by its long burial in the dry hills around Jerusalem. It is the first such find from the time of Christ to be made in Israel.

Mark Spigelman, a palaeopathologist who works for both the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and University College, London, was part of the team set up to study the remains. As well as the usual investigations into the age, sex, cause of death and anything else that they could find out, Spigelman and his colleague Helen Donoghue were curious to know why the ritual had not been completed.

Poverty cannot have been the cause, for the tomb was clearly an expensive one and was located in a part of the valley where high status people - like Caiaphas, the High Priest - were buried. It was highly unlikely that part of the tomb had been given over to a pauper's burial.

The most obvious answer was that the relatives had been prevented from returning, perhaps by their own deaths; minds immediately turned to the Roman siege of Jerusalem in AD 70, when normal burial practices had to be suspended because of the war. Careful carbon dating of the shroud placed the burial in the first half of the first century AD, some thirty to forty years before the Jewish Revolt.

Ms Donoghue was an expert on ancient DNA and had been asked by another researcher to find out whether there was evidence of TB in the corpse. The bones showed evidence of the disease, but there were other possible causes for that damage and only the discovery of DNA from mycobacterium tuberculosis would prove that our unknown subject had the disease.

The search was successful; so much bacterial DNA was found in the body that it is almost certain that the poor man died of TB. However the search turned up evidence of another bacterium: mycobacterium leprae, the cause of leprosy.

This answered two questions: in the first place it gave a very good reason why this particular tunnel had been walled up and abandoned by the man's relatives. They feared both his leprosy and the ritual contamination it could cause and found it simpler to put a coat of plaster over the blocking stone and forget all about him.

Secondly it solved the problem of the disease known to the Bible authors as "leprosy". It was not, as the translators said, "A skin disease": it was real, genuine leprosy.

However as well as answering the questions, it also raised an enormous problem. There is a very respectable theory which says that TB and leprosy cannot co-exist. M. tuberculosis and M. leprae have a number of similar antigens and the antibodies they trigger are identical. In theory, therefore, TB virtually innoculates you against leprosy and vice versa - in the same way that cowpox innoculates you against smallpox.

The theory appeared to be borne out by the fact that though leprosy was prevalent up to the Middle Ages - almost to the extent of being a plague - it suddenly died out in Europe. At the same time, however, Europe began to suffer from a plague of TB, so severe that in Victorian times it was known as the White Death, both from the pale faces of the sufferers and to contrast it with the Black Death.

The discovery, therefore, of a man suffering from both of these diseases appeared to be an impossibility. It was, of course, possible that he was an aberration, a unique sample. However Spigelman and Donoghue set about examining other human remains where leprosy was possible and turned to the Dakhleh Oasis in Egypt, a 4th century shrine visited by lepers. Sure enough they found bodies with both leprosy and TB. 10th century remains from Hungary and others from the Viking Age in Sweden proved to be similarly infected.

In the face of this evidence Donoghue began to re-examine the subject and came up with a new theory. Both diseases are severely debilitating, so that a person infected with either disease would be more prone to all sorts of other infections, including the other disease.

In addition, the social stigma meant that a leper was further weakened. Denied entry to normal houses, the leper was without proper shelter. Having to live on charity, he probably had an impoverished diet. Both together meant that a leper was not only more prone to diseases such as TB, but that he had few defences against them. Instead of the one disease preventing the other, it merely meant that the other disease raged with added ferocity.

TB brought about the disappearance of leprosy not because it prevented the disease but because it killed the lepers off before they could infect anyone else.

The most ironic thing is that this discovery took place near Akeldama, the Field of Blood in the Hinnom Valley, whose most prominent ruin is that of a Crusader burial place for lepers, a large building with a deep basement. The bodies of lepers were tipped in through a hole in the top and the hole was shut up; legend declares that the Crusaders were none too careful to ensure that life was entirely extinct before they tipped the bodies into the hole of horrors.


There is an additional twist to this tale. Analysis of the cloth found around the body - the shroud, in other words - revealed that it is woven in a completely different manner to the famous Shroud of Turin. Although this fact doesn't prove anything - for one man might be buried in cloth woven in one manner, another in cloth woven in another - it does not support the authenticity of the Shroud. See the full article here.