Treponemal disease, encompassing pinta, bejel, yaws, venereal and congenital syphilis, is a bacterial infection that has a long history. It is also very much in our world today, including venereal syphilis, along with other sexually transmitted diseases. Venereal syphilis, a sexually transmitted infection, has particularly fascinated scholars particularly from both medical history and bioarchaeology (palaeopathology), with the media and the public always having their part to play in debates. There have been particular landmarks in the study of this infection, including Baker and Armelagos (1988:Current Anthropology), Dutour et al (1994: The origin of syphilis. Before or after 1493?), Powell and Cook (2005: The myth of syphilis) and Harper et al (2011 Yearbook of Physical Anthropology). There have also been several attempts to isolate the DNA of the bacterium and work in this field of palaeopathology is developing.
In 2018, and organized by Brenda Baker (Arizona State University, Tempe, USA) and Gillian Crane-Kramer (State University of New York, Plattsburgh, New York State, USA), a small group of invited scholars from different disciplines gathered in Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA at the School for Advanced Research to move the debates on this infectious disease forward (funded by the School for Advanced Research, Santa Fe). Scholars representing medicine, bioarchaeology, medical history, archaeological dating, and biomolecular science spent a three-day seminar exploring the “state of play”. This was followed by two events in 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio: a session on the subject matter at the Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropology, and a workshop on treponemal disease at the Annual Meeting of the Paleopathology Association. The outcomes of the project so far have led to a series of recommendations in a published paper, and more activities are planned. These include a monograph to extend and consolidate what we actually know about this infection and, even more importantly, what we need to know
Participants at the Santa Fe seminar from the USA (Baker, Crane-Kramer, Gregoricka, Lee, Lukehart, Stodder, Stone, Winnigear), The Netherlands (Dee), Australia (Henneberg), and England (Mabey and Roberts)