A plaque on both your houses: exploring the history of urbanisation and infectious diseases through the study of archaeological dental tartar


  • Dr Camilla Speller

    University of York

Project summary

Increasing urbanisation has created epidemic incubators, fuelling infectious diseases and often increasing susceptibility to them. Longitudinal perspectives on the socio-environmental conditions which shape the emergence and ‘re-emergence’ of infectious diseases can help to mitigate and prevent epidemics in rapidly urbanising nations. Regrettably, human health experiences throughout much of the (pre-)history of urbanisation are clouded by a lack of reliable data on disease exposure and transmission.

This project will develop a new, innovative approach, which recovers evidence for infectious disease exposure from the mouths of skeletons. Archaeological dental tartar (mineralised plaque) entraps and preserves DNA and proteins from multiple oral and systemic infectious disease pathogens. Uniquely, this can provide insight into past microbial landscapes and disease exposure rates – information not previously available through historical or archaeological analyses. The objectives of this project are: to develop new molecular pilot data on disease exposure in the historically well-documented context of Industrial England; interrogate and corroborate this pilot data drawing upon interdisciplinary expertise in York; and to forge a multi-institutional network investigating historic disease environments and the dynamics of human-pathogen cohabitation throughout the history of urbanisation.