Ruggles-Gates Award – Thomas Siek

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Award Holder: Thomas Siek
University: University College London
Title of Research: Neoplastic Disease in Medieval Poland

I am interested in the paleopathology and paleoepidemiology of neoplastic disease. This is a category that encompasses a broad range of afflictions including, but not limited to, benign and malignant cancers.

The term cancer comes from the Latin translation of the ancient Greek word, karkinos, meaning crab, and was first used by Hippocrates. Other ancient physicians such as Galen and Avicenna make further references to neoplastic disease in their writings, offering varying treatments and explanations for its aetiology. Along with a number of iconographic examples there have been numerous paleopathological studies highlighting various forms of neoplastic disease in archaeological skeletons spanning dozens of time periods and diverse geographic and cultural regions.

However, despite the seemingly abundant evidence regarding neoplastic disease and its ever-present place in the human experience, it is still unclear as to how prevalent neoplasms actually were in the past. Was this a disease that gained the attention of ancient physicians because it was often encountered or because it was a rare phenomenon? Furthermore, did any social processes influence its prevalence over time?

My research examines the potential impact of medieval urbanization on the prevalence of neoplastic disease, with reference to Poland. Following its transition from a loose association of pagan tribes to a Christian, monarchical state in CE 966, Poland experienced rapid urbanization and by the mid 12th century it was economically, socially and politically at the same level of development as other European countries. Poland’s transformation offers a unique perspective into the potential health impact of medieval urbanization on the prevalence of neoplastic disease.

My research was carried out at the Polish Academy of Sciences Institute of Anthropology in Wrocław, Poland.  I examined the skeletal remains of 1,350 individuals from thirteen Medieval Polish cemeteries. This examination included determining the sex and age of the individual using standard anthropological techniques and looking for macroscopic indications of neoplastic disease; radiography was also employed to further discriminate lesions suspected to be of neoplastic origin.  

At the beginning my research unfolded as planned, though there were times where I wondered if I’d be able to finish my examinations during the limited time of my fieldwork. The main and unexpected hurdle, was combing through the large number of Polish academic journals, searching for references to the thirteen cemeteries in order to establish their context and background.  Despite this, I was successful in finding the information I needed, and the Polish researchers who assisted me were more than helpful in offering insights and the occasional translation.  

I am extremely grateful to the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland for making it possible to undergo my fieldwork. The experience and opportunity I had in Poland helped shape me as a researcher in biological anthropology and has enabled me to meet and engage with fellow researchers. More importantly, I believe my fieldwork has laid the groundwork for future biological anthropologists to explore the health impacts of social processes such as urbanization on not only neoplastic disease, but also other forms of non-communicable diseases that modern societies have greatly been affected by in the past century.