29th September 2023
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The Black Death was one of the worst awful pandemics in human history. It devastated European populations from 1346-1353 and resulted in the deaths of an estimated 75 to 200 million peoples.

Archaeologists from the University of Sheffield uncovered 48 skeletons, many of which were children, at the extremely rare Black Death burial site.

The presence of such a large burial site containing both male and females adults, as well as 27 children, suggests the local community was overwhelmed by the Black Death and was left unable to cope with the number of individuals who died.

Dr Hugh Willmott from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Archaeology, who has been working on the Archaeology excavation site since 2011, directed the excavations and explained why the find is of national importance.

“Despite the reality it is now estimated that up to half of the population of England perished during the Black Death, various graves associated with the event are extremely rare in this country, and it seems local communities continued to dispose of their loved ones in as ordinary a way as possible,” he said.

The mass burial of bodies at Thornton Abbey, Lincolnshire
The mass burial of bodies at Thornton Abbey, Lincolnshire

“The only two previously identified fourteenth -century sites where Yersinia pestis (the bacterium responsible for the plague) has been identified are historically documented cemeteries in London, where the civic authorities were forced to open new emergency burial ground to cope with the very large numbers of the urban deaths.

“The finding of a previously unknown and completely unexpected mass burial dating to this period in a quiet corner of rural Lincolnshire is thus far unique, and sheds light into the real troubles faced by a small community ill prepared to face such a devastating threat.”

Dr Willmott Stated: “While skeletons are interesting, they just represent the end of somebody’s life and actually what we are interested in as archaeologists is the existence they led before they died.

“One of the ways we can connect with that is through the everyday objects they left behind.

“One ancient rarity that we found at Thornton Abbey was a little pendant. It is a Tau Cross and was discovered in the excavated hospital building.

This pendant was used by few people as a supposed cure against a condition called St Antony’s fire, which in modern day science is probably a variety of skin conditions.

Tau Cross found at the site
Tau Cross found at the site

“Before we began the dig the site was just an ordinary green field grazed by sheep for hundred of years, however like many fields across England, as soon as you take away the turf, layers of history can be uncovered by archaeology.”

Teeth samples from the skeletons found at the Thornton Abbey site were sent to McMaster University in Canada where ancient DNA was successfully separated from the tooth pulp.

Tests on the DNA uncovered the presence of Yersinia pestis, which is documented to have reached Lincolnshire in the spring of 1349.

Dr Diana Mahoney Swales, from the University of Sheffield’s Department for Lifelong Learning, who is leading the investigation of the bodies, said:

“Once the skeletons return to the lab we start properly learning who these people truly are.

“We do this by recognizing whether they are male or female, children or adults. And then we began to investigate the diseases that they may have lived through, such as metabolic diseases like rickets and scurvy which are degenerative diseases for the skeleton.

But for diseases such as plague, which are lethal, we have to use ancient DNA examination to investigate that further.”

Additional information:

The University of Sheffield:

With almost 27,000 of the brilliant students from over 140 countries, learning alongside over 1,200 of the best academics from across the globe, the University of Sheffield is one of the world leading universities.

A member of the UK’s prestigious Russell Group of leading research-led foundations, Sheffield offers world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines.

Brought together by the power of discovery and understanding, staff and students at the university are committed to finding better ways to transform the world we live in.

Sheffield is the only university to feature in The Sunday Times 100 Best Not-For-Profit Organisations to Work For 2016 and was voted number 1 university in the UK for Student Satisfaction by Times Higher Education in 2014.

In the last decade it has won 4 Queen’s Anniversary Prizes in recognition of the outstanding contribution to the United Kingdom’s intellectual, economic, cultural and social life.

Sheffield has 6 Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and its alumni go on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence all over the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields.

Worldwide research partners and clients include Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Unilever, AstraZeneca, Glaxo SmithKline, Siemens and Airbus, as well as many UK and overseas government agencies and charitable foundations.