Advances in Anthropology
2013. Vol.3, No.1, 33-37
Published Online February 2013 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 33
Palaeopathology and Differential Diagnosis—A Probable Case of
Secondary Infection (Tell Masaikh, Syria)
Jacek Tomczyk1*, Hanna Mańkowska-Pliszka2, G. Michael Taylor3, Ron Pinhasi4,
Maciej Jakuciński5
1Department of Anthropology, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski University, Warsaw, Poland
2Department of Descriptive and Clinical Anatomy, Medical University of Warsaw, Poland
3Division of Microbial Sciences, Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, London, UK
4Department of Archaeology, University College Cork, Cork, Ireland
5Institute of Nuclear Medicine and Magnetic Resonance, Brudnowski Hospital, Warsaw, Poland
Email: *
Received November 20th, 2012; revised December 21st, 2012; accepted January 3rd, 2013
Palaeopathology integrates knowledge and methods from physical anthropology and medicine. It aims to
obtain information concerning the type of pathological conditions, their antiquity, palaeoepidemiology
and etiology in past populations. However, practice shows that despite the use of new techniques, it is of-
ten difficult or impossible to make a correct differential diagnosis of diseases based on the study of ar-
chaeological skeletal series. Here we present a case study of differential diagnosis of pathological condi-
tions which have been observed on the bones of the skeleton of a 30 - 34 years old female from Tell Ma-
saikh (Syria). Morphological, histological, radiological and molecular methods have been applied in order
to assess the pathological lesions. The molecular analysis shows no evidence of Mycobacterium tubercu-
losis although this should be regarded as absence of evidence and not evidence of absence. Subsequently
our diagnosis was narrowed to traumatic changes related to infection. This illustrates the complications
associated with differential diagnosis of pathological conditions from ancient bones.
Keywords: Palaeopathology; Syria; Tuberculosis; Infection
Palaeopathological analysis constitutes a significant part of
anthropological research as it allows researchers to obtain in-
formation and gain knowledge about disease and health in past
populations as well as on the antiquity, prevalence and etiology
of certain conditions. However, practice shows that differential
diagnosis of many conditions is often difficult or impossible
due to taphonomic aspects such as the preservation of bone and
the degree of completeness/fragmentation of certain skeletal
features. For this reason, in many cases palaeopathological
analysis can only narrow down the diagnosis to one or more
possible conditions. In this paper we present a case study of
differential diagnosis of pathological conditions which have
been observed on the bones of the skeleton of a 30 - 34 years
old female from Masaikh, Middle Euphrates Valley, Syria.
During the excavation season of 2006/2007 an almost com-
plete skeleton of a female (MK 11EN28) with numerous patho-
logical changes was excavated in Tell Masaikh (Syria). The
archaeological site is located on the left bank of the Euphrates,
some 6 km upstream of Terqa (modern Tell Ashara). The tomb
fill contained some ceramic sherds from the Late Roman period
(2nd-4th century AD), and hence gives a terminus post quem
date to the skeleton. Based on the pottery and on the chronol-
ogy of the site (tell), the skeleton dates to the period between
end of Late Roman and beginning of the Early Islamic period
(10th-12th century AD) (Masetti-Rouault, 2008) (Figure 1).
The skeleton was discovered and studied in the anthropo-
logical laboratory in Tell Ashara, and some samples were pre-
pared for analyses in specialist laboratories. The sex of the
individual was determined on the basis of the Phenice method
(cf. Buikstra & Ubelaker, 1994). The age of the individual was
estimated on the basis of changes in the morphology of the
pubic symphysis using the Brooks and Suchey (1990) system
and standards for changes in the topography of the auricular
surface (cf. Buikstra & Ubelaker, 1994; White & Folkens,
2000). Based on these criteria the individual represents female,
the age of death was assessed as 30 - 34 years.
All of the bones were examined macroscopically using avail-
able light sources and any signs of pathological alternations
were recorded following the methodology described by Buik-
stra and Ubelaker (1994).
Histological preparations were made in order to identify the
disease observed macroscopically on the remains of the female
individual from Tell Masaikh. Histological analysis was con-
ducted in two independent research centers (Department of
Patomorphology, Specialist Hospital in Siedlce, Poland and
Department of Descriptive and Clinical Anatomy, Medical Uni-
versity of Warsaw, Poland) in order to obtain two independent
sets of results. Histological slides were prepared from sections
taken from the first metatarsal bone, calcaneus and proximal
epiphysis of fibula of the left leg as these show distinct patho-
*Corresponding author.
Figure 1.
Map of the excavation area.
logical changes, similar to the other bones from the left side of
the skeleton. Observations were carried out using a BX 41 M
Olympus microscope.
Radiological examinations were performed in the Institute of
Nuclear Medicine and Magnetic Resonance, Brudnowski Hos-
pital, Poland, and the Radiological Diagnostic Centre in Maia-
din, Syria. Images were all in anterio-superior projection and
the period of exposure was set to 1.2 seconds. In these tests we
used the left femur, tibia and fibula and the first left metatarsal.
The latter was analyzed in Poland while the former were
analyzed in Maiadin (Syria) due to their (pathological) brittle
DNA extractions: bone samples from the left second meta-
tarsal were pulverized to a fine bone powder before analysis. A
NucliSens™ kit from bioMérieux (bioMérieux UK Limited,
Hampshire, UK) was used to extract DNA, with minor modifi-
cation to the manufacturers’ protocol. The bone powder sample
was placed into pre-weighed tubes containing 0.5 g glass beads
(Sigma G8893, <106 µm, 140-finer US sieve). Lysis buffer
from the kit (0.9 ml) was added and the samples additionally
sealed with parafilm® and then subjected to agitation for 10
minutes at room temperature on a vortex mixer with a bead-
beating adapter. The samples were also subjected to 3 freeze-
thaw cycles in liquid nitrogen to facilitate recovery and solubi-
lisation of DNA. After centrifugation at 10.000 × rpm for 5
minutes the supernatants were removed and transferred to new
2 mL microcentrifuge tubes to which the silica slurry (40 l)
was added. The samples were mixed on a rotator wheel (Stuart,
model SB2) for 20 minutes to allow binding of DNA to the
silica. Thereafter, the manufacturer’s instructions for washing
and elution of the DNA were followed. The residues were
eluted from the silica with 60 l molecular biology grade water.
Five microlitre aliquots of the extract were used in PCR reac-
tions. The extracts were screened for evidence of DNA from
the Mycobacterium tuberculosis complex. The multi copy ele-
ments IS1081 were the loci targeted for tuberculosis. The in-
tercalating fluorophore SYBR Green was used to monitor all
the PCR reactions. Additionally, the formation of any specific
IS1081 amplicons in the MTB assay was monitored using a
dual-labelled hybridisation probe. Real-time PCR was per-
formed in a final volume of 25 µl using the Excite Core kit
from Biogene Ltd., Cambridge, UK. The reactions contained 25
pmol of the forward and reverse primers in 1 µl, 2.5 µl of 10×
reaction buffer, 2 - 3 µl MgCl2, 2.5 µl bovine serum albumin
(non-acetylated, BSA, Sigma B4287), 5 µl of template and 0.5
U of Taq polymerase. The volumes were made up to 25 µl with
water (VWR International). After an initial denaturation step (8
min at 95˚C), 45 cycles of amplification were performed as
follows: denaturation at 95˚C for 10 s, annealing (at 60˚C for
IS1081) for 30 s, extension at 72˚C for 20 s. SYBR Green (2.5
µl) was included in all experiments at a final dilution of
1/55.000 and reactions were performed and monitored on a
Corbett Rotor-Gene 3000 real-time PCR platform. Melt analy-
ses were performed automatically at the end of the run with the
Rotor-Gene software and all products were also run out on 3%
agarose checker gels. When the IS1081 hybridisation probe was
included, this was used at a final concentration of 100 nM,
through the addition of 1 µl of a 2.5 µM working stock of probe
per 25 µl reaction. For these experiments, the magnesium con-
centration was increased to 3mM and data was acquired at 76˚C
for 60 s. Template blanks containing water in place of DNA
extract were always included, but positive controls were omit-
ted to avoid the possibility of cross contamination.
All the observed distinct palaeopathological changes were
only affecting the left side of the specimen. Cribra orbitalia
was detected on both orbital roofs. Using the revised version of
Nathan and Haas (1966) and Stuart-Macadam’s (1985) criteria
we observed cribrotic type Nr 2 (small as well as large and
isolated foramina). On the left acromion, the structures of the
trabeculi are slightly thinned with remodeling and hypertrophic
bone development. A few ribs from both sides showed subtle
periosteal reaction on their midshafts and proliferation of new
bone on visceral surfaces. The left ilium (ala ossis illi) has
some damage which is particularly visible on the medial aspect:
the auricular surface and arcuate line. Bone from the affected
side was very fragile and light when compared with this from
the opposite side. Although the observed destruction is me-
chanical (post-mortem), it was facilitated by earlier thinning of
the periosteal and cortical layers. We observe thinning of the
periosteal and cortical layers on the left pubic bone, especially
on the inferior ramus. Additional pathological changes were
detected on the lower left limb. The entire femur is very fragile
with evidence of thinning of the cortical bone and serious
damage of the trabecular bone. There are numerous entheso-
phytes on the posterior side of the femoral shaft which originate
at the linea aspera and continue along the superior part of the
bone (Figure 2).
The structure of the enthesophytes is heterogeneous and they
accrete in some places. Their macrostructure is strongly perfo-
rated with losses of sub-cortical basal parts. A few large cavi-
ties (5 mm × 2 mm) with obliterated edges are observed on the
neck of the femur. However, both trochanters of the femur are
completely destroyed due to thinning of the cortical bone. Ra-
diography shows a widening of the femoral cortical bone, and
the dilution of the substance in the metaphysis. The left patella
is very fragile with various enthesophytes arranged in parallel
on its anterior surface, whereas the articular surface (facies
articularis) is seriously damaged, enlarged and contains nu-
merous perforations (Figure 2).
The left tibia has considerable damage of the cortical and
trabecular bone.
However, the most extensive deformation is not evident on
the diaphysis, as in the case of the left femur, but on its epiphy-
ses. These changes consist on quantitative deficiency of the
cortical structure what is connected with the rarefaction of this
area. Many osteophytes originate from both condyles (though
there are more of them from the medial condyle—condylus
medialis), and their maximum length is 29 mm. The superior
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Figure 2.
Femur with pathological changes (posterior view) and radiograph of
femur (A: medial view; B: anterior view): 1: widening of cortical bone;
2: dilution of the substance.
articular surface (facies articularis superior) is very fragile and
completely perforated (spongy). Moreover, enthesophytes ap-
pear above the nutrient foramen (foramen nutricium). The ra-
diograph of the left tibia reveals irregular lytic changes on the
surface of the proximal epiphysis with segmental densification
of the osseous structures. On the edge of the proximal epiphysis
there are irregular layers which are orientated towards the tibial
diaphysis. There are also small signs of periosteal ossification
(or myositis ossificans), which may indicate post-traumatic
changes as compared to post-inflammatory changes (Figure 3).
The left fibula is damaged. The shaft of the bone is partially
broken at the midshaft, caused by post-mortem damage. The
fracture was, however, facilitated by structural ante-mortem
changes—thinning of the cortical layer and fragmentation of
the trabecular bone. Certain hypertrophic bone development is
observed in the proximal epiphysis. The articular surface of the
head (facies articularis capitis fibulae) is barely noticeable due
to deformations. The margins underwent destructive remodel-
ing with reactive woven-bone formation at the midshaft. The
hypertrophic bone located in the upper parts of the shaft is infe-
riorly oriented while those from the distal section are superiorly
oriented. The distal epiphysis of the left fibula is completely
damaged. The radiographs of the fibula show osteolytic changes
in the cortical layer and the presence of enthesophytes. Remo-
deling in the proximal metaphyseal segment can be observed,
which may indicate past traumatic damage and/or fracture. The
preserved bones of the left foot display pathological features.
The external surface of the calcaneus is completely porous. On
the calcaneal tuberosity there are cone-shaped osseous exosto-
ses. All the articular surfaces are perforated and enlarged. Cer-
tain damage can also be observed on the metatarsal and on the
phalanges. We observed hypertrophic bone development in the
proximal phalanx of the big toe. It is characterized by a long
moon-shaped osseous overhang 27 mm long, located on the
lateral side of the proximal epiphysis (Figure 4).
Radiological images show stimulation of resorptive and atro-
phic processes concerning the trabecular tissue of first left
metatarsal bone. Medially, two post-inflammatory niches (ab-
scesses) are visible—the size of the first one is 2 mm and the
other one is 5 mm. Similarly, in the lateral part there is a crypt
Figure 3.
Tibia (posterior view) and radiograph (A: posterior view; B: medial
view): 1: segmental densification of the osseous structures; 2: post-
inflammatory changes.
Figure 4.
The big toe with a long moon-shaped
osseous overhang.
(2 mm) of the same origin as the niches in the medial part (Fig-
ure 5).
Initial experiments (n = 2) aimed at detecting MTB complex
DNA using the IS1081 F2/R2 primer pair, which would am-
plify a 135 bp product, were negative, whether assessed using
the hybridisation probe or SYBR Green followed by melt
analysis. Similarly, an attempt to detect a shorter fragment
length (113 bp) using the primer combination of F2/R3 was
also negative. To confirm the real-time data, all PCR reactions
were also analysed by gel electrophoresis on 3% agarose gels.
This confirmed the real-time analysis. Formation of primer-
dimer and occasional non-specific bands were seen but no
bands of expected size for either pathogen loci were found (not
shown). The IS1081 screening method is extremely sensitive
and detect less that one genome equivalent (>1 GE, Taylor,
Watson, Lockwood, & Mays, 2006; Taylor, Worth, Palmer,
Jahans, & Hewinson, 2008). At the end of the aDNA analyses,
positive control for MTB was run in the same assay systems to
check the PCR reaction components. This template was readily
detected. Unfortunately therefore, we conclude that our at-
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 35
Figure 5.
The first left metatarsal bone of the phalange: A: two post-inflamma-
tory niches.
tempts to use PCR to demonstrate remnant DNA from either
pathogen in this case were unsuccessful. Therefore it seems less
likely that either disease was active at the time of death. How-
ever, we cannot categorically rule out poor DNA preservation
as an explanation for the negative findings in this case.
The study of the individual reveals a complex picture. So the
discovery with the extensive pathological changes is particu-
larly interesting. The macroscopic assessment indicates that the
entire left limb and pelvis is pathologically altered, starting
from the left ilium to the phalanges of the left foot. Minor
changes can also be seen on the ribs, left scapula and clavicle.
The bones display evidence of osteoporosis, hypertrophic bone
with the osseous exostoses.
The subtle bone damage (especially on the ribs) may be as-
sociated with MTB. Palaeopathological study of MTB in hu-
man remains has been carried out for nearly 100 years (Stone,
Wilbur, Buikstra, & Roberts, 2009). But in the last two decades
a considerable progress has been made in palaeopathological
and biomolecular analysis of the disease/pathogen, indicating
that MTB prevailed since prehistory (e.g. Canci, Minozzi, &
Borgognini Tarli, 1996; Zink, Haas, Reischl, Szeimies, & Ner-
lich, 2001; Mays, Fysh, & Taylor, 2002). MTB is caused by a
group of closely related bacterial species called the M. tuber-
culosis complex. Other bacterial species are widespread in the
environment but members of the MTB complex are obligate
pathogens. The principal cause of human tuberculosis is M.
tuberculosis. In this case infection occurs via droplet infection.
Humans can also become infected by M. bovis. But it is esti-
mated that M. bovis is responsible only for about 6% of human
tuberculosis cases (Hardie & Watson, 1992; Rost, 1995). MTB
relates to people of all ages, although in most cases the ar-
chaeological material concerns, for obvious reasons, the skele-
tons of juveniles (Santos & Roberts, 2001; Ortner, 2003, 2008;
Stone, Wilbur, Buikstra, & Roberts, 2009). Our initial suspi-
cions about MTB resulted from the macroscopic inspection of
the long bones, especially of the changes in the metaphyseal
areas, and the ribs. In the first case, destruction of the osseous
structure and intensified bone neoplasial processes were ob-
served. In the ribs subtle bone damage connected with perio-
steal reaction and proliferation of new bone on visceral surface.
Moreover, our attention was riveted by the changes within the
pelvis – the compact tissue defect and the osteoporosis. Some
authors admit (e.g. Ortner, 2003) that changes in this area,
identified with MTB sacroilitis, occur more frequently in young
adults (between 20 and 30 years old) than with children, which
corresponds to the age of the individual described. Of course,
discreet bones damage which may be associated with MTB is
not described as a diagnostic criterion. However, in this case
study, no pathological changes were observed on the spine. So
we have taken advantage molecular and radiological researches
to confirm or exclude suspicion of MTB. However, our macro-
scopic observations were not confirmed—either by radiological
or molecular means.
Susceptibility to infections (bacterium, virus) and the pro-
gression of the infection is to a large extent depending on the
effectiveness of the immune system. The infections might result
in death, latent, or chronic disease. Bone tissue is affected by
infection that lasts longer than a few weeks. In our case study, it
is likely that we are dealing with an infection of bacterial origin
arising from local trauma to the ankle and/or knee regions. The
radiographic study of the tibia shows irregular lytic changes
which are observed on the proximal epiphysis. In the proximal
head of the tibial bone there are slight signs of periosteal reac-
tion, which may indicate post-traumatic change. Moreover, we
observe the osteolytic changes in the cortical layer in the fibula.
The specimen from Tell Masaikh seems to have suffered from
serious traumatic changes (e.g. open fracture) related to a sec-
ondary infection with suppurative inflammation. The infection
maybe was started in the knee region, and then infected the rest
of the left leg via the blood stream. But we cannot, however,
exclude other potential scenarios in which the infection affected
other bones from a primary location via the blood stream. As
mentioned above, we found three post-inflammatory niches in
the first metatarsal. Moreover, radiologically, there is visible
thinning of the cortical layer with complete local atrophy. This
area could be an outbreak of inflammation. The degeneration of
the osseous tissue due to osteolytic processes and its later ir-
regular reconstruction is especially well visible in the histo-
logical picture. The osseous trabeculas in this case are thinned
and their number often decreases in relation to the normal os-
seous mass. The decalcified bone tissue does not have a margin.
Our histological analysis shows Haversian canals, not so nu-
merous in the cortical part, which are enlarged. This fact indi-
cates disturbances in the distribution of the blood in the bones.
These may be the results of a secondary bacterial infection.
Palaeopathological research is an important element of bio-
archaeological research. Practice, however, shows that the dif-
ferential diagnosis of pathological conditions observed in ar-
chaeological material is often fraught with difficulties. This
case study demonstrates how the use of various laboratory me-
thods, together with systematic macroscopic assessment, is
essential for diagnosis of certain cases. The individual from
Tell Masaikh is a case in point—our approach led to the identi-
fication of some possible medical conditions associated with
the observed pathological changes (which are however, not
mutually exclusive): MTB and serious traumatic changes sub-
sequent to a secondary infection. Ancient DNA evidence for the
MTB complex was not detected, making this diagnosis less
likely. However, we cannot rule out poor DNA survival for this
observation. Our analysis suggests that the most probable con-
ditions which fit the distribution and the type of observed
changes are traumatic changes and associated secondary infec-
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 37
The authors would like to thank Professor Judyta Gład-
kowska-Rzeczycka from Gdańsk (Poland) who has accompa-
nied our research from the very start and has given us much
advice and additional information. We also direct our words of
gratitude to Professor Leszek Królicki from the Institution of
Nuclear Medicine and Magnetic Resonance at Brudnowski
Hospital in Warsaw for allowing us to use a computer scanner
and an X-ray machine. Professor Królicki was also willing to
share his own observations and remarks. Many thanks are also
dedicated to the medical staff—Dr. Haider Esmail from Ashara
and Dr. Hawash Eliane from Maiadin (Syria) who helped to
perform X-ray tests of materials.
The research was financed by the Ministry of Science and
Higher Education (Poland) during years 2009-2011 under Grant
No. N303 319837.
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