Situated approximately one mile outside the city of Winchester, on the Alresford Road, is the site of St. Mary Magdalen Hospital, a former medieval leper hospital (‘a lazar house’). It is possible that this Leprosaria was one of the England’s first hospitals. Archaeologists at The University of Winchester began excavating the site in 2007. In 2000 Channel 4’s Time Team also conducted a short excavation at the site. The Hospital began mid 12th Century, was reformed and rebuilt in the 14th Century and demolished in the 16th Century to make way for brick-built almshouses. The almshouses were finally demolished in the 1780’s by order of the then Bishop of Winchester. The site does not contain any above ground evidence. I was fortunate to be able to visit this extraordinary archaeological dig in September 2010.
Leprosy, or Hansen’s disease as it is also known, is a particularly nasty condition. The skeleton of a leprosy sufferer is quite distinctive. The facial skeleton will show signs of degeneration, the foot phalanges will be wasted and the lower legs and feet will have bony changes. Sometimes, although not as frequently as once believed, extreme cases led to amputation. During the Middle Ages lepers were thought to have been punished by God for the sin of inappropriate sexual conduct. However, we now know that leprosy is a highly contagious disease spread from person to person via exposure to respiratory droplets. Victorian archaeologists and historians believed that medieval society treated lepers as social outcasts, one of the reasons why leper colonies were located away from ordinary citizens on the outskirts of a village or town. The excavations taking place near Winchester reveal that the patients were actually well cared for. The site provides a fascinating insight into the origins of institutional care in early Medieval English Society.
In a field opposite the site of the Hospital, Archaeologists have also discovered the foundations of Hampshire’s largest First World War base camp. The camp consisted of a stable block, barrack blocks on wooden bases, drainage trenches, and gravel paths. Brick foundations have been unearthed of the camp cinema-theatre which provided entertainment to the troops before they left for the battlefields of France and Belgium. Again, no above ground evidence now exists.
If you want to find-out more about archaeological digs across Britain then I recommend the BBC’s Digging for Britain. The second series began Friday 9th September 2011, 9pm on BBC 2.
Don’t miss the superb Heritage Open Days taking place between the 8th and 11th September. Free events and activities will be happening right across England. Some events require pre-booking but many do not. There are 4,300 entries on HOD’s register this year so you are bound to find something happening near to you. Check-out what’s on in your area. I have two fantastic days out planned this weekend and will be posting about them in due course. This is your perfect opportunity to discover England’s hidden heritage and even better it is absolutely free!