Paleopathological Features of the Cervical Spine in the Early Middle Ages: Natural History of Degenerative Diseases

Jochen Weber, Alfred Czarnetzki, Axel Spring, Peter C. Gerszten, James T. Goodrich, Volker K.H. Sonntag, Edward C. Benzel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


OBJECTIVE: Trauma and degenerative joint disease are the most common pathological conditions observed in archaeological skeletal remains. We describe the prevalence of different types of cervical bone diseases observed in the early Middle Ages (6th to 8th centuries AD). METHODS: Human skeletons were excavated from Germanic row graves in southwestern Germany. One hundred ninety-six cervical spines thus obtained were examined for bone disease. The degenerative changes were classified into Grades 1 (marginal osteophytes), 2 (uneven joint surfaces), and 3 (osseous ankylosis). Cervical spinal canal stenosis was defined as anteroposterior diameters of <11 mm and intervertebral foraminal stenosis as <3.0 mm in the smallest diameter. RESULTS: Of the skeletons, 27.5% demonstrated degenerative changes of the cervical spine. The mean age of the skeletons at the time of death was 33.4 years, compared with 43.7 years for those with degenerative disease. Degenerative changes of the vertebral bodies (usually Grades 1 and 2) were most common in the C5-C6 (12.4%, P < 0.05) and C6-C7 (15.3%, P < 0.05) segments. The medial (6.1%) and lateral (0.6%) atlantoaxial joints were rarely involved in degenerative disease. The facet joints from C3-C4 to C6-C7 demonstrated degenerative changes (usually Grades 1 and 2) in 8.0 to 11.8% of cases. The C2-C3 facet joints were significantly involved in degenerative disease in 19.7% of cases (P < 0.05), one-fourth of which demonstrated osseous ankylosis. We observed cervical spinal canal stenosis in 5 skeletons (2.6%) and osseous intervertebral foraminal stenoses in 12 (6.1%). Isolated cases of other pathological processes, i.e., spondylitis ankylopoietica, occipitalization of the atlas and axis, and an odontoid fracture with pseudoarthrosis, were also recorded. CONCLUSION: In the early Middle Ages, the prevalence of degenerative cervical spine disease was the same as that observed today. The C2-C3 facet joints demonstrated high rates of degenerative disease.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1418-1424
Number of pages7
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 2003
Externally publishedYes


  • Cervical spine
  • Degenerative disease
  • Paleopathology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Surgery
  • Clinical Neurology


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