Skeletons buried beneath square were malnourished London victims of Black Death

By Ben Miller | 02 April 2014

A set of 25 skeletons, buried three metres below the ground in London, were victims of the 14th century Black Death

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The lethal bacterium which caused the pneumonic and bubonic plague of London’s Black Death epidemic has been found in the teeth of skeletons buried beneath a square, believed by scientists to have served as an emergency burial ground for poor Londoners in the disease-stricken 14th century capital.

A photo of a man in white gloves looking at a skeleton on a table inside
Lead Archaeologist Jay Carver inspects a rib bone of a Black Death victim in Charterhouse© Crossrail / Robbie Whitfield
“Exceptional” levels of analysis have been carried out on 25 skeletons, laid out in Christian burials under Farringdon’s Charterhouse Square and rediscovered during railway construction work a year ago.

The earliest victims, who bore traces of the Yersinia pestis strain, were buried between 1348 and 1350, with a later layer of bodies dated to the early or mid-1400s.

Experts used the same techniques used to locate mass graves and murder victims, concluding that tens of thousands of people would have been buried across the square, which could have had a chapel at its centre.

“Analysis of the Crossrail find has revealed an extraordinary amount of information allowing us to solve a 660 year mystery,” says Jay Carver, the Lead Archaeologist for Crossrail.

“This discovery is a hugely important step forward in documenting and understanding Europe’s most devastating pandemic.

A photo of a skeleton of a man on a table
Tens of thousands of poorer Londoners are thought to have been buried in the area© Crossrail / Robbie Whitfield
“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.”

Many of the skeletons suffered malnutrition. Two-thirds of them were non-Londoners – coming from as far north as Scotland – with a total of 13 males, three females, two children and seven undetermined genders.

One individual had become a vegetarian later in life, suggesting they may have been a Carthusian monk. High rates of back damage indicated heavy manual labour, with 16% of the bodies suffering rickets.

“What’s really exciting is bringing together many different lines of evidence to create a picture of such a devastating world event as the Black Death,” says Carver.

A photo of a man and a woman carrying out an inspection of a human skull on a table
Museum of London Archaeology osteologist Don Walker and anthropologist Sharon DeWitte, from South Carolina University, extract the teeth to send for DNA analysis© Crossrail / Robbie Whitfield
“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.

“The forensic geophysics results are really intriguing and potentially an important breakthrough in burial ground research.”

City leaders bought up extra land outside the city walls in preparation for the Black Death, which killed millions across Europe. London’s first Black Death plague cemetery was found in east Smithfield during the 1980s.

“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,” believes Don Walker, an Osteologist from Museum of London Archaeology.

“We can start to answer questions like where they came from and what their lives were like.

“What's more, it allows for detailed analysis of the pathogen, helping to characterise the history and evolution of this devastating pandemic.”

The discoveries will be followed on a Channel 4 documentary, Return of the Black Death: Secret History, this Sunday (April 6 2014) at 8pm.

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