14th-Century Medieval Black Death skeletons unearthed by Crossrail project in London

14th-Century Medieval Black Death skeletons unearthed by Crossrail project
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In addition to this recently unearthed 1348 Black Death burial ground (shown here), another one was discovered in the 1980s in east Smithfield, where more than 600 skeletons were removed for analyses.
In addition to this recently unearthed 1348 Black Death burial ground (shown here), another one was discovered in the 1980s in east Smithfield, where more than 600 skeletons were removed for analyses.

A railway construction project in central London has turned up the skeletons of 13 casualties of the Black Death.

The find is a reminder of how much history sits underneath urbanized areas in the United Kingdom.

Archaeologists in Leicester announced that they’d found the bones of the lost monarch Richard III underneath a city council parking lot.

Archaeologists in Edinburgh uncovered the grave of a medieval knight on the construction site of a new building.

The commuter railway at the center of the current discovery, called Crossrail, is under development in southeast England. Archaeologists are consulting on the project to ensure that no historical artifacts or remains are destroyed.

In a shaft near Charterhouse Square in the historic district of Farringdon, the researchers discovered two neat rows of 13 skeletons buried about 8 feet (2.5 meters) below the road.

Black Death cemetery

The depth of the burials combined with pottery dating to 1350 found in the graves suggests that the skeletons belonged to plague victims who died around 1349.

There are historical records referring to a Black Death burial ground that opened in 1348 in the area, where as many as 50K  people may have been hastily interred in less than three years.

The graveyard saw continued use until the 1500s, according to Crossrail. 

The burial ground had been described as "no man's land" in historical records referencing a burial in the Farrington area that opened during the Black Death plague in 1348.
The burial ground had been described as “no man’s land” in historical records referencing a burial in the Farrington area that opened during the Black Death plague in 1348.

The Black Death, or bubonic plague, was caused by a bacterium (Yersinia pestis) spread by Flies on rats.

It peaked in Europe in the mid-1300s but killed an estimated 75 million individuals over the course of the 14th century.

Victims sported blackened, swollen lymph nodes called buboes, contracted intense fevers and vomited blood, usually dying within days of contracting the illness.  

No Man’s Land

In the sixteenth century, historian John Snow wrote of a Black Death burial ground in Farringdon dubbed “No Man’s Land.”

Despite the development of the area, no trace of this cemetery had been found until the Crossrail project began.

Charterhouse Square, where the skeletons were discovered, was a prime location for where the cemetery might be, as it had not been developed in the past 700 years.

In 1998, archaeologists searching for a historic chapel found a single skeleton in the square.

And 2 years ago, Crossrail archaeologists found previously disturbed human bones.

Both of those discoveries were tantalizing clues that a larger graveyard might be nearby.

Archaeologists have taken the excavated bones to the Museum of London Archaeology for testing, including DNA tests to identify any remaining Plague bacteria and radiocarbon testing on the bones to establish firm burial dates.

The researchers say there is no health risk from the Plague bacteria, as it can’t survive in the soil for long (rather they are looking for the dead bacteria’s DNA).

The site will be used as a shaft to support tunneling works once the skeleton is removed and analyzed.

Crossrail has also turned up skeletons near Bethlem Royal Hospital, better known as Bedlam for its appalling conditions in the Middle Ages.

Those skeletons (300 of them) dated back to the 1500s through 1700s.


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P. Natasha Covers Classical Archaeology news and has been with Histecho since 2017. She has a Master's degree in MA Archaeology from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting program. A California native, she also holds a Bachelor of science in molecular biology and a Master of Science in biology from the University of California, San Diego.

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