For some early monks, impaired hearing amplified sounds of silence

Crypt excavation at Byzantine-era monastery finds evidence of damaged ear bones

Monk remains

SOUNDS OFF  An analysis of early Christian monks’ skulls and middle ear bones found in a communal crypt, including those mixed among remains shown here, indicates that a substantial minority suffered mild to severe hearing loss.

M. Judd

SAN ANTONIO — Early Christian monks’ vows of silence may have attracted not only the devout but also a fair number of hearing-impaired men with a sacred calling.

A team led by bioarchaeologist Margaret Judd of the University of Pittsburgh found that a substantial minority of Byzantine-era monks buried in a communal crypt at Jordan’s Mount Nebo monastery display skeletal signs of hearing impairments. Judd presented these results November 19 at the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research.

Judd has directed excavations at Mount Nebo since 2007. Her new results focus on a two-chambered crypt containing skeletons of at least 57 men presumed to have been monks. Oil lamps found in the crypt date to the 700s.

About 16 percent of these men displayed damage to middle ear bones caused by infections known as otitis media. This condition frequently occurs in childhood and can lead to lasting hearing problems even if the infection clears up quickly (SN Online: 3/10/10). Monks showing signs of otitis media probably suffered mild to moderate hearing loss.

Damage to one middle ear bone, the stapes, in two other individuals likely caused severe hearing loss in one ear each. In another case, a fracture above the left eye could have damaged middle ear bones, Judd proposed. Finally, one skull’s thickened bone may have resulted from Paget’s disease, a viral infection in adulthood that can impair hearing.

Hearing loss would have had little effect on monks’ daily lives, since they communicated with hand signals, nods and other gestures, Judd said. Even if some developed hearing ailments after joining the monastery, those conditions must have largely gone undetected by affected monks and their peers who rarely or never spoke, she suggested.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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