ARCHAEOLOGISTS and their students will return to a pioneering dig on the outskirts of Winchester this month.

A team from Winchester University will again be delving under a field just east of the city to look for more evidence for the medieval leprosy hospital –Looking for more signs of ancient called a leprosarium – and almshouse of St Mary Magdalen.

Now close to the Leigh House Hospital off Alresford Road, the site is believed to have been one of the oldest hospitals in the country, if not western Europe, dating back to the late 11th century, shortly after the Norman Conquest.

The groundbreaking dig, led by Simon Roffey and Phil Marter, started in 2008 and is giving crucial insight into the hospital. It is the biggest of its kind in the UK.

Most of the skeletons discovered were of men, women and children, afflicted by the chronic infectious disease of the skin and nerves. Sufferers would die from exhaustion, tuberculosis or kidney disease.

The forthcoming digging season will see a concentration on the medieval chapel and southern cemetery and will run from August 24 to September 11.

Dr Roffey and Marter have written a report bringing their research up to date.

There is no known surviving documentation about the founding of the hospital and the first reference to it is a reference to the ‘Lepers on the Hill’ in the 1148 Winton Domesday document.

The work is provoking questions among archaeologists and historians as to what type of establishment it was.

It would have been a pioneering religious community offering institutional health care.

Leprosy is thought to have been brought to the country from the Middle East at the time of the Crusades when the forces of Christendom invaded the Holy Land to wrest control from the Muslims.

The researchers are seeking to establish how the hospital developed over the centuries. In the 12th century when England was affected by civil war the archaeologists are suggesting that Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester, built a stone tower that would have guarded the eastern approaches to the city.

From the 13th century documentary evidence points to a decline in fortunes as well as renewal. In the late 13th century the Register of Bishop Roger of Pontoise refers to St Mary Magdalen in a lists of assets of which the Bishop of Winchester was a patron.

But by 1334 bailouts were being paid to keep the hospital going, perhaps because leprosy was declining as a problem. By the 16th century it was operating more as an almshouse and looks to have avoided closure in the Dissolution of the Monasteries ordered by Henry VIII that saw the end of establishments such as Hyde Abbey in Winchester and Netley Abbey near Southampton.

The 17th century saw a sharp decline and the buildings were used in the civil war to house Royalist troops before it was converted into a prison for Dutch soldiers in the 1660s and 70s.

By the 1780s the hospital was in ruins. It was demolished by the order of the bishop and made over to the farmland that it is today. Nothing visible remains.

In the First World War from 1914-18 it was part of the enormous camp that stretched from Winchester to Morn Hill and north towards the River Itchen.

The Roffey/Marter report states: “In medieval England, over a quarter of all hospital foundations were dedicated to the care of people with leprosy.

"It is therefore surprising that, in contrast to a number of important historical works on leprosy, comparatively little archaeological work has been conducted on medieval leprosy hospitals.

“The evidence confirms that the hospital is one of, if not the, earliest excavated examples from Britain, if not western Europe.

“The hospital may have represented a pioneering establishment...It may have further served as a model for succeeding subsequent charitable institutions of social care, not properly formalised until more recent centuries.”