MEDIEVAL skeletons unearthed in Winchester, at the site of one of Britain’s oldest hospitals, have given new clues to the roots of leprosy in Europe.

Archaeologists at the University of Winchester, who are carrying out a dig at the former leper hospital at St Mary Magdalen, have contributed to a piece of research on the genetic origins of the disease.

The study links the sudden spread of leprosy to the Crusades and pilgrimages, especially to the Holy Land.

It involved DNA analysis of five medieval leprosy cases in Winchester, Denmark and Sweden. The results showed the presence of genetic markers now common in the Middle East.

The study, published by Science magazine, also looked at genetic comparison of medieval and modern Mycobaterium Leprae, the bacterium that causes the disease.

University archaeologists Dr Simon Roffey and Dr Katie Tucker helped to write the research and supplied UK skeletons for the study.

Dr Roffey said: “I believe St Mary Maglalen is home to one of Britain’s earliest known hospitals founded in the mid to late 11th century and that it was a pioneering hospital created as a response to the sudden spread of leprosy in England.

“This idea is further supported by the genome research that has revealed the disease spread during the time of the Crusades. I think it might also be linked to the popularity of pilgrimage, especially to the Holy Land, during this period.”

The dig hit the headlines in 2010 after radio carbon analysis provided a date range of AD 960-1030 for a series of burials, most showing signs of leprosy at the site off Alresford Road.

Most historians and archaeologists had believed hospitals in Britain only dated from after the Norman Conquest of 1066.

Dr Roffey said: “Our work at St Mary Magdalen has focused on the buildings, burial and artefacts with the aim of studying the history and development of the former medieval leprosy hospital.

“Now our work is feeding into the scientific origins of leprosy and as a result we are finding out a lot more about the disease.”

The university has been carrying out a dig on the site since 2007, led by Dr Roffey and Dr Phil Marter. The site is used to train students in archaeological excavation.