Curator's Choice: Black Death victims in emergency burial grounds beneath London

| 03 April 2014

Lead Archaeologist Jay Carver on the Black Death victims from the 14th century found in Farringdon

A photo of a man standing behind a human skull
© Crossrail / Robbie Whitfield
"This location historically is within the area that we think was associated with one of the emergency burial grounds of the Black Death, set out in 1348.

The area was pretty much open fields, so it was near a part of land owned by the local church which the London authorities of the time purchased specifically to manage what they expected to be a devastating plague event.

They’d heard about the Black Death creeping across Europe and this was obviously some kind of pre-meditated preparation.

This site is one of the most important archaeological sites we’ve got because the period of the Black Death, in the mid-14th century, is not well understood through archaeological excavation.

Twenty-five burials from the shaft is an extremely small number compared to the number we think are probably buried in this area. Historic references suggest up to 200 a day were passing down Charterhouse Street to be buried in this area.

And extrapolating that over the size of the burial ground which was stated as something like 13 acres – perhaps seven hectares – a huge area, a huge number of burials that haven’t yet been discovered.

A photo of an archaeologist in an orange jacket and blue hat digging a skeleton in mud
© Crossrail
So the point of the geophysics was to see if we could trace more burials in the immediate area and see if we can start extrapolating the numbers up to see how many are buried in the area still, yet to be discovered.

A lot of the work that’s gone in over the last year has been about understanding the dating initially. We’ve done that through dating the finds that we’ve got associated with the skeletons, but also by taking samples from the skeletons themselves to undertake radiocarbon dating.

Along with that, the other big questions has been, ‘ok, what did these people die of? Are they associated, or can we associate these individuals with the Black Death itself – with the plague?’

And again, taking tiny subsamples from the skeletons and applying ancient DNA analysis to those has allowed us to identify the DNA of the pathogen Yersinia pestis, which caused the plague and still carries on today to cause the plague.

So these two crucial pieces of evidence we’ve now kind of nailed down through this analysis work.

It’s quite a rare opportunity to find an archaeological site that is so well preserved. It’s a very good opportunity to have a precise window into this historical period which was, ultimately, probably the most devastating period of London’s history."

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