Pubic Lice (Pthirus Pubis L.) Were Present in Roman and Medieval Britain

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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. …