updated 12/31/2003 4:41:26 PM ET 2003-12-31T21:41:26

An Israeli archaeologist has found what he says are the oldest remains of a leprosy victim to be uncovered in the Middle East, buried in a biblical valley whose name became a synonym for Hell.

Shimon Gibson of Jerusalem's Albright Institute of Archaeological Research discovered the 2,000-year-old remains of a man in a niche in a family burial cave in the city's Hinnom Valley.

Gibson said that until now the oldest archaeological findings of leprosy, known in medical terms as Hansen's Disease, were from the Byzantine period, around the fifth century.

"As this is from the first century A.D., it makes it the first known example of Hansen's Disease in the entire Middle East," he told The Associated Press. "It's very exciting."

Gibson said that the Hebrew word "Shara," mentioned in the Bible, could be translated to mean not only leprosy but also other forms of skin ailments, but the Jerusalem discovery confirms beyond doubt that people in the time of Jesus did suffer from Hansen's Disease.

Although he made the discovery three years ago, he said he held off from publicizing the find until DNA tests confirmed the man suffered leprosy and an exhaustive examination of the bones and fibers in the skeleton's shroud were complete.

In biblical tradition, ancient peoples burned children alive as offerings to the pagan god Molech in the Hinnom Valley. The valley's Hebrew name, Gehenna, became one of the names for Hell.

Orit Shamir, a textiles expert at the Israel Antiquities Authority, said the leper's linen shroud indicated that he "was from the upper level of society."

Gibson said that although leprosy weakened the man's immune system, it was tuberculosis that actually killed him.

He said that contrary to the local custom at the time of burying a corpse and then later reinterring the bones, the leper was left untouched in his niche, away from the bones of his relatives.

"People were very frightened of leprosy," he said. "They were afraid of being contaminated."

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