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Pubic lice (Pthirus pubis L.) were present in Roman and Medieval Britain.

Studies of insect remains preserved in archaeological deposits are providing a wide range of information about past human economy, resource exploitation, diet, activity and living conditions. Recent work is exemplified by Buckland et al. (1994; 1996), Dobney et al. (1998), Hall & Kenward (1990), Kenward & Hall (1995) and Robinson (1991). A remarkable aspect of these investigations has been the discovery of abundant remains of insect parasites of humans. There are numerous European archaeological records of the human flea (Pulex irritans L.) from the Neolithic (Buckland & Sadler 1997), Iron Age (Allison et al. 1990; Hakbijl 1989; D.N. Smith pers. comm.) and later (e.g. Allison et al. 1991; 1999; Hall & Kenward 1990; Hall et al. 1993; Kenward & Allison 1994; Kenward & Hall 1995). The human flea is also known from Norse Greenland (Sadler 1990). Archaeological records up to 1988 are discussed by Buckland & Sadler (1989). Human lice (Pediculus humanus L.) are recorded from 7th-century BC--AD 8th-century Israel (Mumcuoglu & Zias 1988; Zias & Mumcuoglu 1991) and from Egyptian mummies of early dynastic date (Fletcher 1994). In Europe they are known from the Roman period onwards (e.g. Allison et al. 1999; Hall & Kenward 1990; Kenward & Hall 1995; Schelvis 1994), and there are records from Iceland (Amorosi et al. 1992; Buckland et al. 1992), Greenland (e.g. Buckland et al. 1983; Hansen & Gullov 1989; Sadler 1990), and North America (e.g. Cockburn & Cockburn 1980; Ewing 1924; Graham 1965; Home 1979). By contrast, the pubic or crab louse, Pthirus pubis L., has only twice been found in archaeological deposits: a single fossil from 18th-century London (Girling 1984), and a group of three from post-medieval deposits, probably of the 17th century, in Iceland (Buckland et al. 1992). This pattern of occurrence might give rise to the suspicion that the insect was a late introduction, but new records from excavations of urban occupation layers in Carlisle, Cumbria, have now shown that the pubic louse was present in Britain in the Roman and medieval periods.

Samples of sediment from numerous archaeological layers revealed during excavations at The Lanes, Carlisle, and interpreted as having formed on surfaces and in ditches, gulleys and pits, have been analysed for insect (and other biological) remains. Many yielded abundant, often quite well preserved, insect fossils preserved by anoxic waterlogging (Kenward et al. 1998). Single specimens of the crab louse were recovered from two of these samples from the Keay's Lane C site. The first was from the fill of a Roman pit, dated between the late 1st and mid 2nd centuries AD (Context 1269.02). The insect assemblage indicated that the layer incorporated stable manure and possibly other waste. The second record was from a deposit of medieval date, also a pit fill, perhaps containing house-floor cleanings (Context 758). The medieval louse (FIGURE 1a) consisted of an entire thorax and abdomen, together with part of the head and the bases of the legs, and was preserved by anoxic waterlogging. Much of its structure could be seen clearly, including the very characteristic arrangement of the abdominal spiracles (the anterior two pairs being well removed from the lateral margins) and the setae of the abdominal terminalia. The Roman specimen (FIGURE 1b) was partly mineralized and detail was obscured, but it could be positively identified by its general body form and such structure as could be discerned.


There are early Chinese, Greek and Roman sources which have been interpreted as referring to crab lice (Busvine 1976; Hoeppli & Ch'iang 1940), including the treatment of infestations of the eyelashes, which occasionally occur today (Burns 1987). Texts of the 15th century onwards seem, with various degrees of certainty, to deal with these creatures, and an illustration of AD 1688 clearly shows P. pubis (Busvine 1976). The fossil records strongly support the interpretation of the earlier literary references as relating to the crab louse.

The relative probabilities of archaeological preservation for the two genera of lice associated with humans may be very different. It is likely that most of the numerous human lice (Pediculus humanus) found in archaeological deposits are the form capitis, occurring primarily in the head hair, rather than corporis, mainly found on the body and in clothing, although separation of the subspecies is extremely difficult in fossil material unless it is exceptionally well preserved. (There appears, in fact, to be doubt amongst entomologists as to whether there are constant characters separating the two forms of Pediculus, cross-matings of which are fertile; see for example Brown 1969; Clay 1973.) Head lice are likely to have been shed in large numbers as a result of grooming, and body lice to have been shaken from clothes, and each often develops very large populations, so that both forms stood a good chance of becoming preserved in surface deposits. In contrast, pubic lice are by their nature perhaps much less likely to become incorporated into archaeological deposits. It has been pointed out that the `sedentary nature' of Pthirus limits its spread (making it of little importance as a disease vector, in contrast to Pulex and Pediculus), and that it is, in a sense, a venereal disease, being mainly transmitted by sexual intercourse (Harwood & James 1979). The insects' behaviour thus reduced the probability of pubic lice being shed into deposits where they might preserve.

Other taphonomic (preservational) problems for pubic lice arise because they are likely often to have remained in situ when the host died (references given by Smith 1986: 164): cremations would obviously destroy them, and interments are typically in well-drained deposits, providing poor conditions for survival. Bog bodies would provide a suitable preservational regime but are rare. Pubic lice might survive in sealed coffins where the contents remained damp, but it would be necessary to process the whole `soup' in the bottom of the coffin, and not just a sample, if there was to be a reasonable chance of finding lice. The lice might be expected to survive in mummies, but they have yielded none, perhaps because of the high status, and thus arguably cleanliness, of the individuals likely to have received such treatment in most societies (shaving of body hair, as in ancient Egypt, may also have been a factor). In contrast, Pediculus has repeatedly been recovered from mummies, probably of ordinary individuals, in North America and Greenland (Cockburn & Cockburn 1980; Ewing 1924; Hansen & Gullov 1989; Home 1979) as well as Egypt.

A curious aspect of the fossil record of the pubic louse is that two of the three known British specimens are mineralized. There appears to be only a single record of mineralized individuals among the many hundreds of specimens of other lice from archaeological deposits in Europe (the exception being two P. humanus from a pit in London with a rather peculiar depositional environment, Girling 1984). While this may be a chance phenomenon, it may result from the pattern of shedding from the host. In the past, as now, head lice were picked off by family members (Busvine 1976), and there are numerous records of fine-toothed antler, horn, bone and boxwood combs, some clearly suitable as `nit combs'. Head lice were probably typically systematically removed in houses or, to obtain better light, in the open; the distribution of lice in deposits at an Early Christian site in Northern Ireland provides evidence of both (Allison et al. 1999). Body lice may have been shaken or picked from clothes. The bodies of the lice were thus frequently deposited on surfaces, where there would either be `waterlogged' preservation or the lice would quickly decay completely and be lost from the fossil record. Mineralization (except of bone-rich dog faeces) is rare in archaeological deposits which formed on surfaces. In contrast, Pthirus would in most social groups most often be removed during thorough washing or in the privacy of the latrine, ending up in drain or cesspit fills where mineralization is fairly common. The (non-mineralized) Icelandic examples appear to have been deposited in a living room, however (Buckland et al. 1992).

It seems likely that the crab louse will inevitably be poorly represented in the fossil record, limiting the likelihood of obtaining a clear picture of its origin and spread. Whatever the special circumstances leading to their survival, the specimens from Carlisle are thus of considerable interest, pushing back the confirmed presence of the pubic louse in Europe by almost 15 centuries and adding to the evidence for a long association with Homo sapiens.

Acknowledgements. I am grateful to the following for their assistance: Paul Buckland, Frances Large, Mark Robinson, Jaap Schelvis, David Smith, Meg Stark and John Zant. The work was funded by the Ancient Monuments Laboratory of English Heritage.


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HARRY KENWARD, Environmental Archaeology Unit (EAU), Department of Biology, University of York, PO Box 373, York YO10 5YW, England.
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Date:Dec 1, 1999
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