Museum of London Archaeologists say volcano killed thousands of medieval Londoners

By Richard Moss | 06 August 2012 | Updated: 06 March 2013
a photo of an archaeologist in trench with several skeletons
© Museum of London Archaeology
When archaeologists found thousands of medieval skeletons beneath London’s Spitalfields Market a decade ago, it presented them with some difficult questions. 

Many of the specimens, which numbered more than 10,500 and were radio carbon dated to between the 12th and 16th centuries, were uncovered in mass burial pits.

Yet the dating of the remains revealed no tally between the great cataclysmic events of the medieval age such as the Black Death of 1348-50 or the Great Famine of the early 14th century.

Now Museum of London Archaeology have finally revealed the cause of a large number of their deaths; a devastating volcano that erupted somewhere in the Tropics and wreaked havoc across Europe in the early modern period.

Archaeological bone specialist Don Walker found contemporary accounts of the event via the medieval Chronicles of the Mayors and Sheriffs of London, which spoke of “heavy rains” and “a failure of the crops; upon which failure, a famine ensued...many thousand persons perished."

Further investigation into the cause of this cataclysm led Walker to unearth accounts of a volcano that erupted possibly in Mexico or Ecuador.

Its force was such that the effects were felt right across the globe as a “dry fog” which cooled the earth’s surface. Ice core data is evident in both northern and southern hemispheres for the disaster.

“This is the first archaeological evidence for the 1258 volcano and is an excellent example of the complexity of knowledge that can be gained from archaeological evidence,” said Walker.

His colleague Bill McGuire, Professor of Geophysical and Climate Hazards at University College Londo, confirmed that the deaths were caused by a “prodigious volcanic event; one of the largest in the last few thousand years.”

“Consequently, it is not really a surprise that one legacy should be a serious increase in mortality in London,” he added.

“Through their influence on climate, major volcanic blasts can affect any locality on the planet, and an eruption in distant Indonesia - which is one of a number of host candidates for the 1257/8 eruption - could without doubt reach out to take lives in the UK's capital.”

The findings are revealed in the Museum of London Archaeology monograph, A Bioarchaeological Study of Medieval Burials on the site of St Mary Spital: Excavations at Spitalfields Market, London E1, 1991–2007.

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