Ancient bones dug up in Ipswich may offer answers to modern medical questions

Bones at Ipswich Museum could be loaned to help medical science research

Bones at Ipswich Museum could be loaned to help medical science research - Credit: Archant

They may have been dead for centuries but the skeletal remains of medieval monks at Ipswich Museum may hold the key to solving a modern medical puzzle.

Archaeologists are hoping to borrow nine boxes of bones – dug up at monastic sites in the town a decade ago – for a project that could lead to a breakthrough for today’s arthritis sufferers.

Ipswich Borough Council will decide if the skeletons can be loaned to English Heritage researchers in Portsmouth, where they will be probed for clues on the condition as it was hundreds of years ago.

The request was made after scientists found evidence of unusual strains of arthritis among the people buried at the old Blackfriars and Whitefriars sites.

Experts see it as a rare opportunity to gain an insight into the lives of ancient Ipswich residents.

Philip Wise, heritage manager at Colchester and Ipswich Museums Service, said: “There are no guarantees of a breakthrough but this is cutting-edge modern science. It’s new and inventive, and will at least give us a greater understanding of what it was like to live in medieval Ipswich.

“We’ll be getting a view of the past which we can’t get by looking at medieval documents of pieces of pottery.”

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With a £23million project currently proposed to bring together the museum, Wolsey Studio theatre, art school and exhibition gallery, Mr Wise sees potential for the bones among future exhibits if scientists make an exciting discovery.

“I’m looking forward to finding out the results,” he said. “There is always the potential that something of significance will come out that we will want to include it in our new display.”

The Whitefriars and Blackfriars were among five religious houses in medieval Ipswich. The bones are thought to belong to brothers of the religious orders or to people associated with the sites. Both lasted for about 300 years but were dissolved in the mid-16th Century.

The loan of up to six months would allow researchers to carry out CT scanning to create detailed images of the inside of the body.

Mr Wise said: “Following a preliminary study a couple of years ago, researchers came back to tell the borough council they were interested in the bones.

“Arthritis affects a lot of people, particularly as they get older. Medical science is trying to find new treatments, but these diseases actually have a long history.

“By studying human remains, scientists will be able to see how the disease has changed over time. They want to see what it looks like in the bones of people who lived 500 years ago and compare it with the modern populous.”