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Archaeologists discover London’s Black Death mass grave

London Black Death victim

Skeletons discovered last year in London were victims of the Black Death, according to new research announced yesterday. Furthermore, archaeologists believe that have found an emergency burial ground created in 1348 for victim of the pandemic.

In March 2013 twenty-five skeletons were uncovered in London’s Charterhouse Square in Farringdon as part of the Crossrail project. Researchers examined the skeletons’ teeth and found traces of the DNA of the Yersinia pestis bacterium which was responsible for the Black Death plague.

The also did radio carbon-14 dating tests, which shows that the skeletons were buried at two different times – the first during the initial outbreak of the Black Death in 1348-50, followed by a later period dating from around the 1430s. Archaeologists observed the different layers of burials during excavation.

London Black Death victim

Archaeologist Jay Carver, who is leading the research, explained that the discovery “has revealed an extraordinary amount of information allowing us to solve a 660 year mystery. This discovery is a hugely important step forward in documenting and understanding Europe’s most devastating pandemic. Historical sources told us that thousands of burials of Black Death victims were made in the 14th Century in the area that is now modern day Farringdon, but until Crossrail’s discovery, archaeologists had been unable to confirm the story. Ancient DNA work is complex and still in development but the results do confirm the presence of the deadly plague bacterium preserved in the teeth.

“What’s really exciting is the bringing together many different lines of evidence to create a picture of such a devastating world event as the Black Death. Historians, archaeologists, micro-biologists, and physicists are all working together to chart the origins and development of one of the world’s worst endemic diseases and help today’s researchers in ancient and modern diseases better understand the evolution of these bacteria.”

Further research on the skeletons has revealed other insights into the lives of these victims, including: :

  • Many of the skeletons appear to suffer signs of malnutrition and 16% had rickets.
  • 40% of the those tested grew up outside of London possibly as far north as Scotland – showing that 14th Century London attracted people from across Britain just as it does today.
  • The later skeletons from the 1400s had a high rate of upper body injury consistent with being involved in violent altercations.
  • One individual had become a vegetarian later in life which is something a Carthusian monk would have done during the 14th Century.
  • 13 of the skeletons were male, three female, two children, the gender was undetermined in the other seven skeletons.
  • Research is consistent with the burial ground being used by poorer Londoners.
  • High rate of back damage and strain indicating heavy manual labour.

Don Walker, an osteologist from the Museum of London Archaeology, added, “The skeletons discovered at Crossrail’s Farringdon site provide a rare opportunity for us to study the medieval population of London that experienced the Black Death. We can start to answer questions like: where did they come from and what were their lives like? What’s more, it allows for detailed analysis of the pathogen, helping to characterise the history and evolution of this devastating pandemic.”

Don Walker

Historical records suggest tens of thousands of people were buried in this emergency cemetery. In a bid to understand just how many people are buried there, Crossrail approached the University of Keele to undertake a forensic geophysics survey, a science usually used to locate mass graves and murder victims. Initial results suggest possible burials extend across Charterhouse Square and a possible building foundation, a likely chapel, in the middle of the square. This is a new application for this type of science and a further Charterhouse Square dig in July of this year will seek to confirm the geophysics results.

Jay Carver adds, “The forensic geophysics results are really intriguing and potentially an important breakthrough in burial ground research. We will undertake further excavations in Charterhouse Square later this year to confirm some of the results.”

See also our earlier article Burial ground discovered in London may be victims of Black Death

Black Death victims

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